Mayoral Smoke Screen?

Antismoking activists were pleasantly surprised when Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza went on the offensive against cigarette manufacturers. In letters made public January 3, the mayor blasted cigarette makers for targeting children in their advertising: "While most of us see kids as our hope for the future, the tobacco industry sees them as their profits for the future. ... They have no conscience. They put money above decency. They are no better than the schoolyard thug who deals crack during recess."

Rimsza apparently isn't above supporting legislation offered by those thugs, though.

It wasn't crack that Don Isaacson was peddling when he met with the mayor last week. Isaacson, a Tobacco Institute lobbyist, was shopping an industry-sponsored bill that would require licensing to sell tobacco products. He asked for the mayor's support, and he got it.

Scott Phelps, Rimsza's spokesman, says the mayor has endorsed the bill "with some caveats."

But antismoking activists say that while Isaacson's bill purports to restrict sales of tobacco to minors, you can bet its most significant provision will supersede tough ordinances enacted by cities.

Tobacco foes are surprised that Rimsza would give his support to the legislation only a week after his strong stance against tobacco. Rimsza sent his antitobacco missive to local billboard tycoon Karl Eller, U.S. Representative J.D. Hayworth and North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. Rimsza's condemnation of "government-subsidized cancer" and the targeting of children by cigarette companies was front-page news.

The mayor won applause for his strong words. Joe Garagiola, the baseball commentator and Valley resident who campaigns against chewing tobacco, sent Rimsza a letter to congratulate him.

Rimsza was not available for comment, but his spokesman, Phelps, says the mayor doesn't see a contradiction in throwing his support behind a bill sponsored by the same industry he had railed against only the week before.

Isaacson reportedly told the mayor that his legislation would license tobacco retailers in the same way that businesses are licensed to sell alcohol. The bill also would restrict cigarette-vending machines to employee lounges and adult businesses such as bars. The mayor agreed to support the measure, Phelps says, as long as language was introduced that would give Phoenix the power to enforce the statute inside its borders.

Isaacson was unavailable for comment.
Dr. Leland Fairbanks, a physician and president of Arizonans Concerned About Smoking, says the measure Isaacson is peddling sounds suspiciously like a similar tobacco-licensure bill that failed in the Legislature last year. It, too, was sponsored by the tobacco industry, called for licensing of tobacco retailers and restricted the placement of vending machines.

"They convince some of the legislators that it's going to do something positive. But they put in two features you can always count on--pre-emption of tough local ordinances and a smoker's-rights feature that requires businesses which had already voluntarily gone nonsmoking to go back in and put in smoking areas," says Fairbanks.

Statewide pre-emption would mean that the provisions of Isaacson's bill (which activists say sound stringent, but really have no teeth) would supersede the efforts of municipalities to enact tough antismoking ordinances.

In Scottsdale, for example, where cigarette-vending machines have been banned outright, a more lax, pre-emptive state law could supersede the tougher local ordinance. So, in the name of controlling tobacco, the law might actually increase the number of vending machines.

A pre-emptive bill could also spell doom for supporters of an ordinance Mesa will vote on March 26, which would beef up nonsmoking-area regulations in restaurants and other public places.

"I don't think that I've ever heard of a mayor supporting a pre-emption bill," Fairbanks says. "It would remove what is usually the biggest obstacle to tobacco-industry bills. It's very unusual for a city to give up control."

Rimsza's caveat about adding language to Isaacson's bill doesn't make his endorsement any more palatable, Fairbanks says.

"It's much easier to have your own good bill than it is to fight for amendments to a bad bill," he says, pointing out that Dr. Andy Nichols, a state representative from Tucson, is co-sponsoring a tobacco-licensure bill that doesn't call for statewide pre-emption.

"That's a fundamental difference between our bill and the tobacco industry's bill," says Nichols. "If you're going to have a licensure bill, and you really want to get control of the selling of tobacco, then I think you'll support this one, which was thought through very carefully." Nichols says he has no plans to lobby Rimsza.

In the meantime, Isaacson is using the mayor's support to drum up business elsewhere.

On January 10, the lobbyist met with Phoenix Vice Mayor Frances E. Barwood. She says he made a point of mentioning that he'd already won the mayor's support.

She proved to be a harder sell.
Barwood said she raised some concerns about the bill and asked to look at it more carefully. Isaacson said he would fax her a copy, but never did.

"I figure that if the tobacco industry does something," Barwood says, "you know it's not going to go against them.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega