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Published: Monday, 1/16/2006

Statewide smoking limits face uphill fight

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS Ohio s anti-smoking effort, funded by the tobacco settlement, has poured more than $2 million into passage and implementation of local clean indoor air laws.

But now that the Super Bowl of smoking bans is before the Ohio General Assembly a statewide ban that would be among the strictest in the nation the Tobacco Use Prevention and Control Foundation must sit on the sidelines, at least officially.

The 2000 law that created the foundation forbids it from lobbying or otherwise getting involved in a state ballot issue, the goal behind petitions certified by Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell and forwarded to lawmakers.

Despite the legal prohibition, foundation board members and employees have circulated petitions for the ban on their own time and the ballot issue could get a boost from the foundation s $7 million-plus stand ad campaign this year warning of the dangers of secondhand smoke. That ad campaign will go forward as planned but without mentioning the ballot issue.

The foundation has funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars that came from the likes of Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds into organizations like Tobacco-Free Ohio and the Licking County Board of Health that are actively involved in pushing the statewide ban. The foundation s dollars, however, were earmarked for local ordinance efforts unrelated to the statewide effort.

We cannot officially urge people to vote for this issue, foundation Executive Director Mike Renner said.

We can speak, and will speak, on the dangers of secondhand smoke and the value of having policies that protect innocent persons and nonsmokers from exposure to those toxins.

He personally gathered some of the roughly 117,000 signatures certified by Mr. Blackwell to petition lawmakers to enact the statewide ban as proposed, and he plans to do so again this spring and summer to put the question directly to voters on Nov. 7.

We have our job to do. What they do on their own time is their decision, said Jacob Evans, lobbyist for the Ohio Licensed Beverage Association. The association is part of a coalition of bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, private clubs, and others fighting the ban.

The coalition hopes to beat the anti-smoking activists to the punch by persuading lawmakers to pass a ban that would provide more exemptions, and it s challenging the validity of the petitions in the courts.

The organization is also trying to raise money for what could be its own advertising campaign this fall touting its proposed ban to voters as the more reasonable of the two.

Mr. Evans said he believes voters will be able to differentiate between political ads urging passage of a ballot issue to protect people from secondhand smoke and the foundation s more general message about the dangers of secondhand smoke.

Susan Jagers, spokesman for the American Cancer Society of Ohio and co-chairman of the SmokeFreeOhio campaign pushing the statewide ban, said anti-smoking activists weren t contemplating a statewide ballot issue when the 2000 legislative battle was fought.

We didn t want any limitations in state law on how [the tobacco settlement] money would be spent, she said.

We thought it should be left to the [foundation s] board of directors to decide how to reduce youth and adult smoking in Ohio.

Foundation spokesman Beth Schieber said it s possible the foundation could pull its advertising as the November election approaches, as it did during the heat of the 2004 presidential election.

She said the move would not be an attempt to distance the stand campaign from the ballot issue, but rather an indication that television air time likely would be at its most expensive during that time.

Tobacco settlement dollars funneled through the foundation have been used by organizations to successfully seek passage of ordinances that largely prohibit smoking in indoor public places in Columbus, several of its suburbs, Summit County, and a pair of Licking County communities.

Tobacco-Free Ohio spent $371,623 in 2004 to push ordinances in urban and suburban Cleveland and the Toledo suburbs of Maumee, Sylvania, and Oregon.

No ordinances resulted.

The lack of success in suburban Toledo was credited, in part, to passage of a voter referendum that watered down Toledo s smoking ban by exempting bars, bowling alleys, and some restaurants.

Our grant expired more than a year ago, said Tracy Sabetta, Tobacco-Free Ohio spokesman. We weren t involved in the [statewide] campaign at that time. Any unexpended funds were returned to the foundation.

The foundation was created in 2000 using part of the state s $10 billion share of the national settlement with major tobacco companies.

States had argued that the companies marketing practices had forced them to spend billions treating smoking-related illnesses like lung cancer and emphysema.

It remains to be seen what role, if any, the tobacco industry may play in trying to beat back the stricter statewide ban pushed by SmokeFreeOhio.

The opposition has said it will raise funds for its campaign and would not rule out accepting tobacco money.

Philip Morris USA spokesman Jennifer Golisch said the Virginia-based company has no plans to get involved.

There are places where smoking should be prohibited, such as in elevators, places where fire hazards exist, and places where there are primarily children such as playgrounds and schools, she said.

But there are reasonable ways to respect the comfort and choices of both smoking and nonsmoking adults, she said.

We believe business owners, particularly the owners of restaurants and bars, are most familiar with how to accommodate the needs of patrons, Ms. Golisch said.

Anti-smoking activists remain suspicious about documents from a prior court settlement that showed the industry had at least planned on working with the hospitality industry to push for preemption laws prohibiting local action on smoking bans.

I don t have memos, Mr. Renner said. I don t have canceled checks, but there s no doubt in my mind that the tobacco industry is supportive of the licensed beverage organization or the hospitality industry people.

I m certain there are discussions in which the tobacco industry s expertise is being shared with the beverage association.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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