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Where There's Smoke : On the Front Line With the Tobacco Lobby

August 24, 1986|BELLA STUMBO | Bella Stumbo is a Times staff writer.

Nevertheless, both may return when the ordinance comes up for further hearings. The Tobacco Institute is sparing no expense or effort to at least drastically dilute the New York ordinance--which in its original form would have forced restaurants to allot up to 50% of their seating to nonsmokers. (Los Angeles' ordinance, in contrast, permits restaurants to set their own policies; only the most hard-core municipalities, such as Palo Alto and San Jose, have adopted such stringent percentages. Palo Alto, for instance, requires a 60-40 division in favor of the nonsmokers.)

"Whichever way New York goes," as Stapf had observed grimly at breakfast, "it's going to send a very major signal to the rest of the country."

So far, the institute has every reason to be optimistic. It has already hired a leading Manhattan public relations firm to help organize a committee of businessmen and private citizens, called the Committee for Common Courtesy, to fight the bill. The committee's membership ranges from former Gov. Hugh Carey, former Mayor John Lindsay and Howard Cosell to the chamber of commerce, the Restaurant Assn. and the Hotel Assn. The state NAACP has also been enlisted.

"From experience, black people are opposed to any law that tends to segregate one segment of the population," declared NAACP President Hazel Dukes hotly. "And it just makes me furious when I hear them (anti-smokers) argue that low-income minorities are being hurt more by cigarettes than educated whites. There's not a lick of evidence to support that! To the contrary, most poor people gotta bum butts, they can't afford the habit. It's just one of their tricks, saying, 'Oh, we're just trying to save those poor people.' But what is true is that Koch's proposed fines for anybody caught smoking someplace off limits would hurt minorities more."

Dukes (a nonsmoker) was especially steamed at the New York Times, which editorialized against the Common Courtesy committee:

"If courtesy were king in New York City, its citizens would not be so adept at stealing cabs from one another. The dog owner would scoop the poop simply because he cared about his fellows' feet, and the pedestrian would have no need to fear the demon cyclist, or the bus rider the moody driver. The elderly and infirm might even be able to get seats on the subways. But New Yorkers are born with their elbows akimbo--the better to make their way through the crowd, and have never been known for their manners." Et cetera.

" That ," Dukes fumed, "is downright insulting!"

It may be correct, nevertheless.

"Ha. Koch is gonna tell me I can't smoke in my own cab?" snarled one New York cabbie, a Marlboro clenched between his teeth. "Hell, I hate those self-righteous bastards! I get a passenger who starts bitching about my cigarette, I just pull over and tell 'em to get out and find another cab that suits 'em better! I just wanna see the cop who's gonna fine me for smoking in my own cab! I tell you, this thing passes, there's gonna be fistfights in the streets of this town."

The kind of talk, needless to say, to warm the cockles of any Tobacco Institute lobbyist's heart.

nd enough, some days, to make Ron Saldana, the institute's man in Anaheim, practically weep with envy.

"I used to get nervous, especially if I was at a hearing alone, but now I just get mad. And frustrated. I don't know what it is that makes California different from the rest of the country, but the piety and militancy of the anti-smokers out here is unbelievable," says Saldana. "I've been hissed, booed, shouted down, called all the usual names--merchant of death, baby killer, hired gun, you name it. Lotta times, too, they don't want to allow us to even speak. And when we do, they laugh and snicker, really rude . . . and they refuse to hear a single thing we say. One of the most hostile crowds I've ever seen was in Riverside. They did everything but throw stuff at me.

"But, the worst part is, we usually can't even get the local chambers of commerce organized behind us, to speak out in their own self-interest. California businessmen are just so resigned to having some ordinance forced on them, they don't think it's any use to protest.

"And forget the smokers themselves. If we could mobilize them, they would of course be a very formidable force. But the California smoker has been intimidated for so long, so ostracized, they're actually ashamed to stand up for their rights. I really feel sorry for them."

Welcome to the trenches of Region No. 9, a battle zone so fierce and fraught with failure that other Tobacco Institute lobbyists speak of it in tones of semi-awe and give grateful thanks each day that it belongs to poor old Saldana and not them.

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