Big Tobacco’s back

School kids and health officials take on the tobacco lobby in the first legislative skirmish over local smoking controls

Former smoker Carolee Ames, who teaches smoking cessation classes in Las Vegas, survived eight vascular surgeries. Now she lobbies for a change in Nevada law that would allow local governments to adopt more stringent regulations regarding tobacco products.

Former smoker Carolee Ames, who teaches smoking cessation classes in Las Vegas, survived eight vascular surgeries. Now she lobbies for a change in Nevada law that would allow local governments to adopt more stringent regulations regarding tobacco products.

Photo by Deidre Pike

It’s getting late Friday morning, and the Senate Judiciary Committee has to plow through hearings on three more bills, including Senate Bill 50, which would allow local governments to regulate some tobacco issues. The senators have to be on the floor at 10:30 a.m., says Sen. Maurice Washington (R-Sparks), who’s filling in for missing chairman Mark Amodei (R-Carson City).

“How many of you are here for SB 50?” Washington asks.

Almost every hand in the crowded room goes up.

“How many in support of the bill?”

The hands go up again. The room is packed with health officials, cancer survivors, teen boys in letter jackets and earnest, clear-skinned girls in skirts. Lobbyists in suits stand along the walls of Room 2149, flitting in and out of the room like anxious insects.

Carson Valley Middle School student Alyssa Matus, 15, goes over two pages of printed comments with a blue Sharpie, placing in brackets a carefully censored quote she’s included from an RJ Reynolds employee: “We don’t smoke that s____, we just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke it for the young, the poor, the black and stupid.”

Washington says: “Speaking against?”

Heads crane to catch a glimpse of the enemy. One honest lobbyist sitting in the back of the room raises her hand, not looking up from a stack of papers. No other hands go up.

“We win,” exclaims a woman. She later earns a warning for blurting, “That’s not true,” when an RJ Reynolds lobbyist twists a bit of information about an existent ban on smoking in public buildings.

Friday’s hearing represents a mere introductory skirmish in what promises to be a contentious debate over whether the state should allow local governments to adopt more stringent anti-smoking rules than those of the state.

The bill, as introduced by Sen. Ray Rawson (R-Las Vegas), who chairs the Task Force for the Fund for a Healthy Nevada, features plenty of loopholes. For example, SB 50 specifically prohibits any bans on smoking in bars and gambling establishments. That includes grocery stores and convenience stores, even if the store in question has only one slot machine. So if you like to puff away on your Camels while plunking quarters in the Albertson’s slot machines, you’re safe with SB 50. Even if that means an asthmatic child can’t go shopping with mom so as not to be exposed to second-hand smoke.

The meek little change in state law would come in useful if, say, a county school district wanted to ban smoking on school campuses. State law now prohibits banning smoking by teachers or parents or other legal tobacco users on school grounds. When Clark County School District wanted to ban smoking on its campuses, it couldn’t do so.

Las Vegas mom Mitzi Johnson testified to the committee via a video conferencing link. She became an activist in favor of local control after a tobacco company put up a catchy cigarette billboard right outside her daughter’s middle school. When she tried to complain about the billboard—and the message it was sending to young people—she learned that local entities could do nothing to regulate such advertising.

Who else supports giving control of these sorts of issues to local governments?

Well, the voters of the state of Nevada, for starters. In Clark County, a ballot question that advised the Nevada Legislature to approve a change in the law that allows local control won 57.3 percent of the vote. In Washoe County, support was even a bit higher—59.2 percent.

Kendall Stagg of the Nevada Tobacco Prevention Coalition contends that local governments are allowed to create controls on everything else, from gambling to alcohol to prostitution.

“It’s only tobacco [that escapes this control],” Stagg tells the Senate committee. “This is a tobacco industry relief measure … to prevent local governments from taking common-sense measures to protect children from second-hand smoke and from developing a life-long habit, to allow bans on smoking in arcades and to allow school boards to adopt anti-smoking policies.”

Given the chance, what kinds of rules might local boards adopt, asks Sen. Terry Care (D-Las Vegas). Rawson tells Care that it’s not possible to predict exactly what local governments might do.

A quick look at campaign contribution reports shows that Care has accepted money from both Philip Morris and from a legal firm that represents the tobacco companies in Nevada. In fact, most—if not all—of the members of the Senate Judiciary have received money from tobacco companies and tobacco-related groups. Philip Morris has contributed to the campaigns of Washington, Care, Sen. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) and Sen. Mike McGinness (R-Fallon). R.J. Reynolds contributed to the campaign of committee Chairman Amodei. Two other senators received contributions from the Nevada Restaurant Association, another group that does not support SB 50.

In other testimony, Carolee Ames tells of her personal battle with cigarettes, which included eight vascular surgeries and more than $750,000 worth of medical bills. Now, Ames works at a Las Vegas hospital where she teaches smoking cessation classes. But she still sees patients dragging their IV stands and oxygen tanks “down to the patio to smoke.”

She understands addiction.

“There was a time in my life when I would have crawled in the gutter to smoke,” she says. Her voice breaks as she holds up an old picture of herself, cigarette in hand, face partly obscured by a cloud of smoke. “This was me! I don’t look like this anymore!”

The anti-tobacco groups’ allotted 22 minutes of testimony flies by. Many students, including 15-year-old Matus, don’t get to speak.

Now it’s the lobbyists’ turn.

Mary Lau, a lobbyist for the Nevada Retail Association, is joined by a few crisply suited men. One is Alfredo Alonso, who calls himself as a lobbyist for the Nevada Retail Association. Alonso doesn’t mention that he’s also paid to represent the interests of RJ Reynolds.

“I always hate the tobacco bills when they come forward,” Lau says.

Her sister has cancer, Lau says, though the woman never smoked a day in her life. “Nobody can explain what happens,” she says.

Lau says the debate should focus on “economic issues” rather than emotional ones. She asked the senators to think of the retailers whose livelihoods depends on their ability to sell an adult product responsibly.

One senator asks how much something like a ban on smoking in public schools would affect the business of a convenience store owner. Probably not much, the lobbyists admit. But Alonso insists that this change to state law is like “a camel’s nose under the tent.

“If you pass this bill or another, they’re going to be back,” he says. In an inspired leap of imagination, he cautions that local homeowners’ associations could stretch the bounds of this legislation to forbid unlucky cigarette addicts from smoking “in your own home!”

The audience gasps. “That’s just ridiculous,” someone says.

With the debate properly framed, the committee closes the first hearing on SB 50, taking no action.

“Was that even worth it?" Lau complains to a fellow lobbyist on exiting the room.