Hoping to keep young people from getting hooked on tobacco, the Senate on Thursday passed a measure by state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) that prohibits the promotional giveaway of cigarettes and chewing tobacco on street corners.
Bergeson said the ban, which she proposed at the request of the California Medical Assn., is necessary to prevent tobacco companies from recruiting new, underaged customers by indiscriminately dumping millions of free samples on the public.
In California alone, she said, tobacco company employees working crowded streets and special events, such as concerts, handed out 97 million free cigarettes last year--more than three for every citizen. The industry has also given away an unknown number of chewing tobacco samples at such events as rodeos, she added.
Although current law prohibits distribution of tobacco products directly to minors, she said the promotional freebies all too often find their way into the hands of impressionable teen-agers.
"One of the staffers in the Capitol admitted that she first got her start on samples that were handed out when she was 15 years old," Bergeson said before the Senate vote. "Promotional efforts are really there to recruit new smokers."
Senators voted 27 to 2 for the ban, which prohibits the giveaways on any public sidewalk, street, playground, park or building. The measure would not preempt any tougher local ordinances and would impose civil fines ranging from $200 to $1,000 for violation of the ban.
The bill, which now goes to the Assembly for study, also makes findings that smoking is the "single most important source of preventable disease" in California, where 60% of all smokers begin their habit before reaching the age of 14.
Bergeson's measure is one of the few anti-smoking bills this session to thus far survive intense lobbying by tobacco interests, an important source of political contributions. At one point, Bergeson's giveaway ban was bottled up and left to languish in a Senate committee before she was able to dislodge it for a hearing on the Senate floor.
The bill is opposed by the Tobacco Institute, the Smokeless Tobacco Council and R. J. Reynolds Tobacco.
Only one senator, Leroy Greene (D-Carmichael), spoke against the ban on Thursday, saying it was a misguided notion that would improperly prohibit advertising rather than cigarettes. He said the state should instead concentrate on current laws prohibiting distribution of tobacco to minors.
"We're a bunch of sheep. We'll follow anything . . . . ," Greene said about the proposal. "Every Pied Piper that comes around, we all line up and say: 'Yeah, that's where we're going.' "
Yet Greene's objections were more than countered by other speeches, including one from an unlikely source--Sen. William A. Craven (R-Oceanside), the upper chamber's most inveterate smoker.
"This is an area in which I have some degree of expertise, and I guess I can say I have the lungs to prove it," said Craven, who suffers from shortness of breath from his 52-year smoking habit.
The legislative veteran said that he even handed out free cigarette samples when he was young. But now he does everything he can to encourage youngsters to stay away from tobacco products.
Bergeson said Thursday that state finance officials believe that the proposed ban could actually save the state money because of reduced long-term health-care costs.
Already, state health officials say 750,000 California have quit or been dissuaded from taking up smoking because of Proposition 99, the 1988 voter initiative that places a 25-cent tax on every pack of cigarettes.
The decline in smoking is credited to the increased cost of cigarettes, as well as a $29-million anti-smoking campaign funded by the tax and aimed at teen-agers, pregnant women, children and minorities. Those groups are considered the most likely to take up smoking, health officials say.