Politics: A Smelly, Puking Habit

In January, a week after publicly excoriating the tobacco industry, Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza threw his support behind tobacco-sponsored state legislation that would have made it tougher for cities to pass strict antismoking measures.

After New Times pointed out the duplicity, Rimsza backed off his support of the bill, and a week later bumped into a New Times staffer. "I'll tell you the truth," said the mayor, "I was duped on that one."

The mayor hadn't realized that when the state's biggest tobacco lobbyist peddles a bill which would supposedly cut down on tobacco sales, there might be a catch.

Perhaps that's why the mayor seemed so aggressive when the same tobacco lobbyist gave testimony to the Phoenix City Council on May 7. The hearing dealt with the city's plan to address the problems of youth smoking, and forces on each side had gathered to do battle.

Antitobacco activists want Rimsza and the council to adopt a tough ordinance requiring merchants to apply for tobacco licenses and risk losing those licenses for selling to minors. Representatives of the merchants, however, said the city should concentrate on enforcement of existing state laws.

First to testify was Don Isaacson, who identified himself as a representative of the Arizona Licensed Beverage Association. But he's also the state's principal lobbyist for the Tobacco Institute, and the same lobbyist who has for two years running pushed unsuccessfully for a lax statewide tobacco-licensure bill which would prevent cities from passing stricter measures. Isaacson told the council that tobacco licensure should be handled at the state level, just like liquor is.

"Don," Rimsza said when Isaacson's two minutes were up, "I want to ask you a question that might make you uncomfortable." Rimsza noted that between July 1995 and March 1996, the state board overseeing liquor licenses had received 1,596 complaints, yet had revoked zero licenses.

Rimsza repeated the word "zero" for effect.
How could Phoenix rely on the state to regulate tobacco sales, Rimsza asked Isaacson, when the state has no guts going after liquor sellers?

The message seemed clear: Rimsza may have been fooled once into supporting a statewide scheme which would let the tobacco industry off the hook, but now he was determined to do something on a local level.

Antitobacco activists say that if the city is going to get tough with cigarette merchants, this is the time. In each of the past two years, Isaacson has pushed for a statewide licensure bill which would pre-empt the efforts of cities to adopt stricter measures. Such a law would prevent new ordinances such as Scottsdale's ban on cigarette machines, for example, or Mesa's recent initiative limiting smoking in public places. Each time, however, the Legislature has turned down the tobacco industry's bill.

Mark Killian gets much of the credit. The speaker of the House and conservative Republican has resisted pressure from his party colleagues to pass Isaacson's bill. But with Killian reportedly considering retirement, the third time could be the charm for the tobacco industry's licensing scheme.

Rebecca Villicana, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Tobacco-Free Arizona, says that's why Phoenix must act now if it wants to crack down on the sale of tobacco to minors.

Antitobacco activists seem less than impressed, however, by Mayor Rimsza's aggressiveness toward tobacco lobbyist Don Isaacson.

Calls to city council members explain why: Despite Rimsza's bravado on May 7, there's little support for a city licensing effort.

Councilman Sal DiCiccio--whose campaign-donors list reads like a who's who of tobacco figures such as Tobacco Institute lobbyists Isaacson, Warren Ridge and Steven Duffy, and Philip Morris lobbyist John Mangum--says that his colleagues prefer to let the state handle the licensing question. "I didn't hear anyone really say that they wanted to do it at the city. You know, we've got kids that are smoking crack," DiCiccio says, insisting that the council has more serious problems to deal with.

And despite Rimsza's admission that he'd been "duped" into supporting the tobacco industry's statewide licensing scheme, his own staffers say the mayor still favors a state-level approach to the problem. "I think the real hope is that we'll be able to work on something this summer not only with the antitobacco people but with representatives from the retail industry to come up with a framework that we can go hand-in-hand with the Legislature to next year," says mayoral assistant Jennifer Pike. "And that way we are able to develop a statewide licensing scheme that has some real teeth and some real consequences that will impact the problem of youth access to tobacco."

Mayoral aide Scott Phelps sounds insulted when it's suggested that Rimsza can afford to appear tough on smoking when there's little support for action on the council. "It's not that all of a sudden he's decided to get tough because he doesn't think the votes are there," Phelps says. He does admit, however, that other council members don't share the mayor's passion for action on youth smoking.

Says Phelps: "We were told this week from Sal DiCiccio's office . . . that government has no business passing these kinds of laws because kids are always going to smoke . . . that it's silly to pass a law because kids are going to smoke whether there's a law or not. So I suspect that his position has to be, people are going to kill other people, so it's silly to pass laws against homicide. I mean it has to be his position, otherwise he just remains goofily inconsistent.

"It's incredibly cynical for folks to say it's easy for [Rimsza] to talk tough because he doesn't have the votes. It would be easier for him to say nothing.

"The important thing is if you believe in something, you have to just get in there and try things, and we're trying this. And it's not some Arpaio-esque stunt for Channel 3; I mean we really want to get this done.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega