No smoke without fire in California

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The Independent Online
THE highly charged debate over smoking in the US has flared again over an unprecedented attempt by America's largest tobacco company to stall the national trend against smoking by appealing directly to voters.

The tobacco giant Philip Morris is behind a bid to persuade the electorate in California to pass a law which gets rid of several hundred local anti-smoking bylaws and replaces them with one, less rigid, state-wide regulation.

Few doubt that the move is the opening volley in a battle which the tobacco industry intends to fight on a national front, as California has led the way in anti- smoking legislation. As a result, the consumption of cigarettes in the state has dropped by a third.

It is illegal, for example, to smoke anywhere in a restaurant in Los Angeles, and in Davis, near Sacramento, cigarettes are even banned in bars. Such is the emotion surrounding the issue that fights have erupted between health-conscious Californians and die-hard smokers.

Philip Morris, supported by a group of restaurants and hotels, wants a law which gives restaurants and businesses - rather than government - the right to designate smoking zones, so long as they are well-ventilated and no more than a specific size.

To get the proposal placed on the ballot for November's elections, the company was legally required to gather 385,000 signatures from registered voters in the state. After bombarding the public with mail-shots, it managed to collect 607,000.

According to Americans For Non-Smokers' Rights, the signatures were gathered by using misleading methods. They accuse the company of dishonestly labelling the ballot initiative a tobacco 'control' act, and hiding behind an umbrella organisation called Californians for State-wide Smoking Restrictions.

'Poppycock,' replies Lee Stitzenberger, the consultant hired by the company to run its campaign. 'I find it interesting that these people are willing to go to these extremes to prevent voters deciding the issue. Our proposal would be the toughest state-wide legislation in the country. There is a prohibitionist element at work that would like to completely ban the sale and use of tobacco.'