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Tobacco Giant Quietly Pushes Prop. 188

October 10, 1994|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a state that has led all others in attempts to snuff out smoking, the nation's largest cigarette maker is taking the bold step of pushing a voter initiative that would make it easier for smokers to light up.

With its Proposition 188 on the Nov. 8 ballot, tobacco giant Philip Morris USA hopes to become the latest big business to use California's initiative process to turn its goals into law.

"It is a very difficult, uphill fight," said Lee Stitzenberger, the Westwood political consultant entrusted by Philip Morris with convincing Californians that smoking policy should be guided by a cigarette manufacturer. Difficult, but not impossible.

Improbable as it may seem in California, where fewer than one in five people smoke, Proposition 188 exhibits signs of life. Public opinion polls show that the race is close. The tobacco industry is outspending the vote-no-on-188 forces by a margin of 28 to 1. The opponents consist primarily of health groups, doctors and anti-smoking activists, who are having a hard time attracting attention--essential for countering the strategy employed by Stitzenberger and Philip Morris.

"(Philip Morris') plan is to be low-profile," said Jack Nicholl, the Los Angeles consultant for the No on 188 campaign. "Don't create any controversy . . . then slip in in the dark of night, with an ignorant electorate. It's a smart tactic based on weakness. The weakness is that the sponsorship is not tolerated by the voting public."

Proposition 188 would reverse a decade-long trend in California, returning to restaurants and other businesses the right to permit smoking in ventilated sections.

The initiative would erase local smoking bans from Los Angeles to Redding, and prevent cities from regulating tobacco use in the future. The initiative also collides head-on with a bill passed by the Legislature that would be the nation's strongest statewide smoking restrictions.

Signed into law by Gov. Pete Wilson earlier this year, the statewide ban will go into effect in January--unless Proposition 188 passes, in which case the initiative takes precedence.

The legislation signed by Wilson would ban smoking in most indoor workplaces--restaurants, malls, offices, factories among them. It would prohibit smoking in bars by 1999, unless the state can develop standards to guard against the ill effects of secondhand smoke. The law also would permit cities to pass even tougher smoking ordinances.

Since none of that was considered good for its business, Philip Morris fought back with the initiative, paying $1.8 million to place it on the ballot in a petition drive that brought charges of fraud by anti-smoking forces--charges at which Stitzenberger scoffs.

While other tobacco companies are belatedly joining the effort by donating money, Philip Morris remains Proposition 188's prime backer.

"We've got a business interest in ensuring that our customers are treated equitably," said David Laufer, a Philip Morris executive in Sacramento.

Philip Morris is a New York-based conglomerate that makes Marlboro, the world's best-selling cigarette, and claims a 40%-plus share of cigarette sales in the United States.

The company emphasized its interest in Proposition 188 in a September letter to its stockholders, declaring that the initiative's passage is of "paramount importance to our customers, our employees and you, our stockholders," and saying it is needed to block the statewide ban from going into effect.

With four weeks to go before the election, Stitzenberger has spent $5 million of Philip Morris' billions. The next-largest donor, R. J. Reynolds, which makes Camel cigarettes, has given $1.6 million. Other tobacco companies have given a combined $1.25 million.

Through the end of September, the Yes on 188 effort had raised $7.8 million. A relative handful of restaurant and bar owners and others have given a total of less than $2,500. Stitzenberger predicts that the campaign will not cost more than $10 million, but says he has no plans to air high-priced television spots, and may not go on radio--although "that could change."

For now, Stitzenberger plans to run a "cerebral" campaign to "educate" voters. His message is that Proposition 188 is a reasonable compromise between smokers and nonsmokers. He intends to make heavy use of direct mail, the theme of which is that voters should read the initiative.

"If people understand what's in the initiative, and get away from all the hype, they'll see it is a fair, balanced, reasonable solution," he said. "We believe a majority of voters believe in some measure of business choice."

It's not clear, however, that even careful readers of the voting pamphlet would pick up on some of the nuances in Proposition 188. The initiative says, for example, that smoking would be permitted in business establishments that meet ventilation standards.

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