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Legislators Deal Two Defeats to Tobacco Industry

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reacting to allegations that the tobacco industry was secretly behind his bill, a lawmaker Thursday dropped a controversial provision that would have prevented cities and counties from imposing their own anti-smoking restrictions.

For good measure, an Assembly committee approved a separate measure prohibiting cigarette and chewing tobacco firms from distributing free samples on street corners and public fairgrounds.

Both actions represented stunning defeats for tobacco interests that, lawmakers said, stemmed directly from the political furor over the disclosure of an internal tobacco industry memo. It implied that Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) advised cigarette officials on how to write sham anti-smoking legislation. Brown has adamantly denied it.

The memo purportedly details a June 28 telephone conference call between tobacco officials and their Sacramento lobbyists. One of the lobbyists quoted Brown as saying any industry-backed proposal should have the “appearance” of controlling tobacco use while actually halting local no-smoking efforts.

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Two weeks after the conversation, a bill similar to the one outlined during the private discussion was introduced by Assemblyman Gerald N. Felando (R-San Pedro) over the objection of anti-smoking activists. It preempted local control and substituted a plan to license tobacco retailers in much the same way the state regulates establishments selling alcoholic beverages.

The measure seemed to be gaining momentum until Monday when three health groups dropped a political bombshell by leaking the memo. Brown and Felando denied any links with tobacco interests, but news stories focused on the Speaker’s practice of collecting large campaign donations and gifts from cigarette giants such as Philip Morris and R.J.R./Nabisco.

“All we did was turn the lights on and showed everyone what we knew was going on in the first place,” Theresa Velo, lobbyist for the California chapter of the American Cancer Society, said about disclosure of the memo. “We just luckily came across some wonderful proof . . . that this was a tobacco industry bill.”

But Felando said he believed the leak was actually the work of tobacco interests, who hoped to kill off the bill because it was too tough.

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“They (tobacco industry) put out a phony memo that took a direct hit at me and Willie Brown,” Felando said Thursday. “So now, I’m going to acquiesce to those wacky anti-smoking groups.”

Whatever the origin of the memo, it had a dramatic effect Thursday.

Felando drastically changed his controversial measure by dropping the clause sought by the tobacco industry that would have preempted local regulations. He also added a provision phasing out cigarette vending machines by 1996. Felando then asked that the bill be held in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee--a maneuver that throws doubt over whether the measure can pass before the Legislature adjourns Sept. 13.

Although Felando said he made the changes to “hurt the tobacco industry,” he also showed displeasure with anti-smoking activists. Leaving the committee microphone Thursday, he turned to a gathering of anti-smoking lobbyists and shouted: “Now, all you phony anti-smoking people, let’s see what you have to say about the bill!”

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A spokeswoman for the Tobacco Institute in Washington said her group, which reluctantly supported the Felando bill, has now decided to oppose the measure. “A bad bill just got worse,” she said.

Meanwhile, the committee voted 15 to 2 to pass a rival anti-smoking measure by Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) banning distribution of free tobacco samples in public places, streets and fairgrounds.

Bergeson said the ban was necessary because tobacco firms last year gave away 97 million cigarettes in California. She contended that many of the free samples were intended to end up in the hands of children.

Bergeson’s bill has become a rallying point for anti-smoking interests, who say the tobacco industry has successfully snuffed out 12 other anti-smoking measures since the beginning of the year.

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