When Rancho Mirage last December became the first California city to outlaw cigarette vending machines, a mom-and-pop firm called Bravo Vending filed suit to overturn the ban.
After voters in November, 1988, passed Proposition 99, raising the state cigarette tax by 25 cents a pack, it was another obscure family business--Kennedy Wholesale Inc. of Glendale--that challenged the initiative before the California Supreme Court.
Both firms had the kind of high-priced legal help that most small businesses can't afford. Each was represented by the respected Los Angeles law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson.
And in each case, the tobacco industry, its foes say, was quietly helping pay the bills.
Nowadays, America's cigarette makers seem reticent about stepping out in public, except to take credit for sponsoring artistic and sporting events. Frequently pummeled in the press and painfully aware of their negative image, they have sought to avoid the spotlight in California's smoking wars.
But that's not to say they have given up the fight. They are heavily involved in the background, helping more sympathetic, neutral-sounding groups undertake the battles in which they have a common interest.
Cigarette companies "need to hide their face," contended Julia Carol, associate director of the Berkeley-based Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, a nonprofit group that campaigns for restrictions on smoking in public places. "They would not have standing in a community to object to what a community is doing, so they have to hide behind reasonable-sounding groups."
Industry officials say the tobacco companies are hardly hiding; the industry vigorously defends its product in the courts, Congress and state legislatures. Instead, they say, the big tobacco firms simply are overextended by an explosion in local smoking-control ordinances.
"We try to do everything we can," said Brennan Dawson, a spokeswoman for the Tobacco Institute in Washington. Industry critics, she added, are "operating under the assumption that there are more of us than there are."
Whatever the cigarette companies' motives, they have scored successes from their low profile.
In April, the Long Beach City Council passed a tough anti-smoking ordinance that by 1994 would have banned lighting up in restaurants. But when a subsequent petition campaign left the council with the choice of repealing the ordinance or putting it before voters next year, the council suspended the law. Now council members are weighing a watered-down ordinance.
The petition drive succeeded with the help of paid signature-gatherers working for Californians for Fair Business Policy. According to records filed at the secretary of state's office, the political action committee is "sponsored by tobacco manufacturers, wholesalers and restaurants."
Representatives of the group did not respond to questions from The Times.
Similarly, the tobacco companies took a low profile last fall when the Los Angeles City Council voted down a proposed ban on restaurant smoking. The most prominent opponent, however--a group known as RSVP, or Restaurants for a Sensible Voluntary Policy--had heavy support from the cigarette makers.
"We're an association fighting for restaurants," said Rudy Cole, head of RSVP. But, he added, "We do receive support from the tobacco industry . . . and I would like to get more money from them, not less."
Health activists rail against such alliances, contending that they distort what remains a David-and-Goliath fight against profitable industrial giants.
Dawson said it is ridiculous to accuse local business groups that fight smoking bans of being fronts for the "tobacco bogyman."
"Why is it so very hard to believe that if you're going to hurt somebody's business, that they're going to squawk about it?" she asked.
Though Dawson was talking about such local businesses as restaurant owners and vending machine companies, the stakes in the smoking battle are greatest for the $40-billion-a-year tobacco industry.
California remains by far the nation's largest cigarette market, thanks to its booming population. During the fiscal year ended in June, 1990, Californians puffed their way through more than 2.2 billion packs of cigarettes--about 100 packs per adult.
Still, only 21.2% of Californians age 18 and older smoke, compared to about 27.3% nationally, according to a recent study by the state Department of Health Services.
Proposition 99 has cut into the tobacco makers' market, the study found: The state has 750,000 fewer smokers than it would have if Proposition 99 had not passed. A nickel of the quarter-a-pack increase in the state's tobacco tax--roughly $110 million a year--finances a broad-based campaign of advertising, education and smoking cessation programs.