ANNAPOLIS, FEB. 8 -- Anti-smoking groups are planning a major push this year to persuade the General Assembly to raise cigarette taxes, restrict vending machine sales and designate smoking areas in many restaurants and the new baseball stadium in Baltimore.
After years of wrestling with the tobacco industry, lobbyists for doctors and health groups say concern about Maryland's high cancer rate and a depleted state treasury will now give them the upper hand in their effort to discourage smoking, particularly among youths.
"One special interest is keeping this public health tragedy unaddressed," said Gerard E. Evans, a lobbyist for the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland, the major doctor's association in the state. The group, a well-funded lobby in its own right, plans to work in conjunction with the Cancer Society and the Heart and Lung associations, to launch "an attack on all fronts" to pass anti-smoking legislation this year, Evans said.
Tobacco Institute lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, however, accused anti-smoking forces of trying to "harass" adults and keeping them from exercising their personal freedom.
Bereano said a proposal to ban cigarettes in vending machines, for example, rests on the "bogus" justification that the machines are a major source of cigarettes for underage smokers, rather than a simple convenience for adults.
"When is the last time you saw teenagers lining up at a vending machine to buy cigarettes?" said Bereano, who also represents an association of vending machine dealers. "It is good rhetoric . . . but the real motivation behind it is to hassle adult smokers."
Maryland law prohibits the sale of cigarettes to anyone under 18; Bereano said no more than 15 percent of all cigarette sales are through vending machines, and he estimated the figure is less than that for minors.
Other proposals include raising the state tax on cigarettes from 13 cents a pack to 33 cents, an idea that is attracting attention even from tax opponents as one of the easier ways to ease the state's budget crunch.
The tax increase would generate almost $90 million each year; one measure would dedicate that new money to health care, smoking prevention and a crop diversion program for tobacco farmers. Gov. William Donald Schaefer, as part of a broader tax package he is backing, supports applying the sales tax to tobacco products.
Bills also have been introduced to expand the number of retail stores required to designate smoking areas, order their establishment in restaurants and the Camden Yards stadium, and ban smoking at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Bereano, a nonsmoker, said he will push again this year for legislation that would prohibit employers from firing or refusing to hire smokers, an idea he has floated unsuccessfully twice before.
The fight over smoking has intensified in Annapolis in recent years, as it has in other Washington area jurisdictions, as concern has risen over issues like the effect of passive smoke on the health of non-smokers.
In Virginia last year, anti-smoking groups scored what they consider a landmark victory when members of that traditionally pro-tobacco legislature ordered limits on smoking in public places.
The D.C. Council has approved limits on vending machine sales and tough smoking laws for the workplace. Montgomery County has banned smoking in many public places and offices, including employee restrooms and company cars, and is considering vending machine restrictions.
Robin Shaivitz, a lobbyist for the Cancer Society and the statewide heart and lung associations, said that despite Maryland's tradition of growing tobacco, the state's high cancer death rate has piqued the interest of lawmakers in measures curbing smoking.
An estimated 480 million packs of cigarettes were sold in Maryland in 1990, the fourth-highest per-capita rate of sales in the country, Shaivitz said.
Although that is down from a high of 578 million packs in 1981, Shaivitz said the health community is still "appalled at the number of youths being lured into smoking.
"The focus has come around. We've done a lot to foster a no-smoking atmosphere . . . and so what we need to do is look at ways to prevent new smokers."
Shaivitz said a congressional study found teenagers were particularly price-sensitive in their smoking habits: Each 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes produced a 10 percent drop in consumption.
Bereano responded that the anti-smoking groups are less interested in the state of the Maryland treasury than they are in punishing smokers.
"These are zealots who want to lead other's lives," Bereano said. Referring to higher federal cigarette excise taxes that just took effect, he said "it is very discriminatory and very unfair to continually -- and flippantly -- look at smokers to carry the fiscal burden."
Taxes: Raise the state tax on cigarettes from 13 cents per pack to 33 cents, with revenue dedicated to prenatal care, smoking prevention and a crop-diversion program for tobacco farmers. Another bill would give counties the option of imposing a tax of up to 5 cents per pack, with the proceeds going to pay for education.
Vending Machines: Various proposals including a ban on vending machine sales of cigarettes, and a requirement that purchasers buy tokens over the counter for use in the machines.
Smoking Areas: Require a smoking section to be established in the new Baltimore baseball stadium; ban smoking in Baltimore-Washington International Airport; lower from 20 to seven the number of employees a retail store may have before being required to designate a smoking area; require restaurants with seating capacities of 50 of more to designate smoking areas.