Why are cities getting so feisty about smoking?
In part, it's because anti-smoking crusaders recognize that industry lobbyists have little influence inside city council chambers.
"Local policy changes are still the foundation of our movement," said Bronson Frick, associate director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights in Berkeley, one of the oldest anti-smoking organizations in the country.
"And because of that, we probably have one of the most successful social change movements, because we always win," he said.
The state's first law restricting smoking, Frick added, was a 1977 law in Berkeley that banned smoking in certain areas where the public gathers, like government buildings or grocery stores.
"The tobacco companies found they were not very successful at local smoke-free efforts," he continued. "Because their lobbyists had no credibility, they couldn't actively engage with citizens when they showed up with their silk suits."
The latest anti-smoking proposal stirring up public debate came from the wood-paneled chambers of the Belmont City Council on Nov. 14. That night, it was approved, and sent to the city attorney for fine-tuning, a proposed law to ban smoking throughout the city, except in single-family, detached homes. The council is expected to vote on the final version in mid- to late-winter.
If passed, it would create the most restrictive law in the nation governing smoking. The proposal has attracted international attention, with Belmont (population 26,000) City Council members fielding inquiries from reporters with Fuji TV in Japan, Facts newsmagazine in Switzerland and Fox TV, among other news outlets.
"We've hit some kind of nerve," said Dave Warden, a city councilman. "It has gotten to the real issue of the rightsof smokers versus nonsmokers."
Cigarette manufacturers stayed out of the decision-making process in Belmont, as well as in Calabasas and Dublin, said Bill Phelps, a spokesman with Philip Morris USA in Richmond, Va. This year, Calabasas banned smoking in most public places and declared secondhand smoke a public nuisance. Dublin also recently deemed secondhand smoke a nuisance, which allows citizens to sue each other for excessive exposure to unwanted tobacco smoke.
"Most of our engagement is at the state level," Phelps said, noting that the company hires government-affairs specialists and lobbyists to advance its legislative interests.
"We are not actively engaged in Belmont on that proposal," he added. "We're aware of it, but we're not involved."
Phelps said the company's position on smoking restrictions is found on the corporate Web site at http://www.philipmorrisusa.com.
The site states that Philip Morris USA supports the right of nonsmokers to avoid exposure to secondhand smoke, but that bans on outdoor smoking or smoking in one's home go too far. Smoking outdoors should be allowed, except near children, and the decision to smoke at home or any other private dwelling should rest with the occupants, the company stated.
Tobacco firms didn't always adopt a hands-off approach to local politics. In a 1994 report from a tobacco industry representative, available on the University of California, San Francisco's Tobacco Control Archives, the author described aggressive efforts by Philip Morris USA to mobilize "municipality strike teams" aimed at influencing city and county lawmakers' decisions.
"We taught them how to prowl the corridors of town halls reading bulletin boards," stated the report. "We showed them how to search the local newspapers for notices of public hearings. Most importantly, we taught them to pick up the telephone and dial our number when they spotted something."
From there, the report continued, "We prioritized the threats and assigned someone to handle each one. It controls the hemorrhaging at the local level while we work to get statewide preemption bills passed."
State preemption laws, explained Stanton Glantz, Ph.D., one of the nation's leading anti-smoking crusaders and architect of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UCSF, prohibit cities or counties from passing laws more stringent than the state, such as those governing tobacco smoking.
Efforts to enact a preemption law in California regarding smoking were unsuccessful, Glantz said, but did succeed in close to half of U.S. states. Several, however, have since been repealed, he added.
Furthermore, in the mid-1990s, when the first of the settlements between state attorneys general and tobacco firms were reached, one of the stipulations was that the tobacco industry's lobbying arms, the Tobacco Institute, the Council on Tobacco Research and the Center for Indoor Air Quality Research, would be dissolved. Tobacco firms now individually engage in legislative activities.
Glantz emphasized that at the state level, lobbyists hold far more sway. He recalled how when one prominent tobacco industry lobbyist would arrive at state legislative meetings, "knees started knocking." But when he came to city council chambers, council members, upon learning he was from Sacramento, would say, "What the hell are you doing here?" Glantz recalled.
"Local politicians," he added, "are a lot more interested in what their local constituents think than do state politicians."
State Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, recalled intense lobbying against legislation she carried in the 1980s to ban smoking in state buildings. But at the local level, she said, "lobbyists don't have any clout," since strict campaign-contribution laws limit how much a council member can receive.
Citing the example of a financial privacy act, SB1, that Speier spent years trying to enact at the legislative level, she said she changed tactics and sought approval for it at the local level.
The act requires financial institutions like banks and insurance companies to seek permission from customers before sharing their personal information with outside companies. Daly City, San Mateo County, San Francisco and Contra Costa County were among the municipalities that adopted financial privacy laws, which required financial institutions within their jurisdiction to follow the privacy provisions.
"We were hitting them where it hurt," she said. "In very short order, local city council members and board (of supervisor) members were able to pass them with no problem."
The local laws were challenged in court. "But we gave them a couple of Excedrin headaches with those ordinances," Speier said. In the meantime, she turned her attention to launching a ballot initiative sponsoring the financial-privacy provisions, which ultimately led to the adoption of the law.
Tobacco companies aren't staying out entirely of local politics. Phelps, with Philip Morris USA, said the company did participate in an unsuccessful campaign to dissuade voters in Cuyahoga County in Ohio from approving on Nov. 7 a 30-cent-per-pack cigarette tax. The company provided retailers with posters and other assistance during that campaign, he said.
Glantz said he finds the success of the anti-smoking efforts inspirational. "I'm a big fan of local," he said. "I tell people it's like eighth-grade civics in action."