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Published: Friday, 2/23/2007

Will smoking ban succeed at last in Michigan?

LANSING, Mich. - Tom George is a state senator from Kalamazoo, a conservative Republican who thinks there is one area where the state badly needs more government regulation.

Smoking.

"This is an area where the legislature really needs to act. This is a life and death issue," he argued last week. He has reason to know. The 50-year-old senator is also a doctor, an anesthesiologist who has seen plenty of what even secondhand smoke can do.

Accordingly, he has introduced tough new legislation that would totally ban smoking in Michigan bars, workplaces, and restaurants. His isn't the first try. For seven years, lawmakers have tried to get Michigan to consider a smoking ban, but the Republicans who controlled the legislature refused to let any of the bills come up for a vote.

Now, however, Democrats are in a stronger position, and Senator George adds Republican support. What's more, his is a bipartisan effort; his co-sponsors included two Democrats from blue-collar districts, Ray Basham from Taylor and Brenda Clack of Flint.

In the past, some Democrats from working-class areas have been reluctant to support smoking bans, because a higher percentage than average of their constituents smoke. But that attitude seems to be changing. That's partly because the percentage of adults who smoke is dropping; it is now less than 21 percent, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And more is also known about the damaging effects of secondhand smoke.

"It's wrong for hard-working people such as bartenders, waitresses, factory workers and others to be exposed to cancer-causing smoke just because they need to earn a paycheck," said Mr. Basham, 62, a long-time Ford Motor Co. worker who was also heavily active in the United Auto Workers union.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm is preoccupied with the budget crisis, but has said that she would sign a smoking ban. Such a bill would also probably pass the Michigan House, which Democrats control. The key issue may be whether Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R., Rochester) allows the bill to come up for a vote.

A spokesman for Mr. Bishop told the Associated Press that the senator opposed smoking and knows secondhand smoke is harmful, but "believes that government shouldn't interfere with the manner in which private industry conducts itself."

However, that could change if public sentiment builds for a smoking ban. If another Republican joins Dr. George's efforts, they, and a united Democratic caucus, could form an anti-smoking majority.

Watch for the battle to be properly joined once a budget agreement is hammered out.

•

Former State Sen. Virg Bernero would like to see a lot more government interference in another area: Soda pop in schools.

Last year, the 42-year-old Democrat voluntarily left the state Senate to become mayor of Lansing. He left frustrated, because he failed to make much headway on a major cause.

He had introduced a bill to extend the Michigan sales tax to soft-drinks, something that would have raised about $110 million a year in new revenue for the state. "The soft-drink lobby killed it. I couldn't even get a vote," he says, voice rising with exasperation.

"It is absolutely criminal what we are doing to our kids. Do you know that there are more schools with pop machines than milk machines?" he asked incredulously.

One of his bills would simply have required schools to have as many milk machines as pop machines. "I went to the nurses. I went to the dairy association. I even went to the soda pop industry and told them I would back off if they would just get out of the middle schools."

"Do you know what they did? They laughed and said 'we think we should be in the elementary schools, too.'•"

Since then, however, far more public attention has been drawn to what experts call an epidemic of child obesity. A flurry of new studies, most notably in the prestigious British Medical Journal The Lancet, show a strong correlation between the increasing consumption of sodas and other sweetened beverages and child obesity.

Yet soda machines are now in an estimated 98 percent of high schools and 74 percent of middle schools.

Last year the American Beverage Association signed an agreement with the nonprofit Alliance for a Healthier Generation which aims to phase soft drinks out of schools within three years.

That may be easier said than done, however. Some school systems have signed long-term contracts with beverage distributors. Many schools are dependent on that revenue to support activities like athletic programs and marching bands. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Michigan Soft Drink Association said its products should neither be banned from the schools nor be subject to a sales tax, since they are "a food."

That incenses Mayor Bernero, who can see the Capitol dome from his office. He wishes someone there would take up his cause, especially now that the state so badly needs revenue. "This is a sin tax. Lawmakers love sin taxes. Go for it," he said.



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