SACRAMENTO — Portraying their initiative as an anti-smoking measure, the tobacco industry is airing radio spots in which a woman identifying herself as a school vice principal claims that Proposition 188 will keep children away from cigarettes.
But California's top health official, and other critics of the measure on the Nov. 8 ballot, call the ad one more ruse to sell the initiative to California voters. They say Proposition 188 will repeal far stronger laws already on the books that limit minors' access to cigarettes.
"I'm hard-pressed to see how 188 is a stronger approach to this very difficult problem," said California Health Director S. Kimberly Belshe.
The new Proposition 188 radio spot features a woman's voice claiming to be a vice principal. The voice describes Proposition 188 as the "best way to keep cigarettes away from kids."
"I've been working with kids for 24 years," the voice says. "I know what motivates them, and I understand the way they think. I want to stop kids from smoking. Proposition 188 will help do that."
The commercial is the first to be broadcast in the campaign over the tobacco industry initiative, and represents a key component of cigarette makers' campaign to persuade voters that Proposition 188 is not merely an underhanded attempt to make it easier for smokers of their products to light up.
"The tobacco industry's claim of cracking down on kids' access to cigarettes is misleading at best and fraudulent at worst," said Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Brentwood), one of the harshest critics of Proposition 188.
Several other provisions of the measure also purport to restrict smoking. But for each one of the proposal's components, there are local ordinances or state anti-smoking laws that are tougher on smoking in public places.
If passed, Proposition 188 would repeal all local smoking ordinances and knock other state smoking laws off the books. Proponents say 188 contains all the restrictions necessary, and present the new ad to pitch that message.
The ad describes the initiative as a "common sense approach to help keep tobacco away from minors," and concludes by saying that the spot was sponsored by Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions--which is funded by tobacco companies.
"It is an important piece of the initiative, and an important part of the campaign," Lee Stitzenberger, strategist and spokesman for the pro-tobacco initiative, said of minors' access to cigarettes. He said the speaker in the radio ad is a public school vice principal, but would not name her or say where she works. She was not paid, he added.
Stitzenberger previously said he had no plans to air radio or television ads. But with Proposition 188 leading among likely voters in a recent Times poll, that strategy has changed.
Stitzenberger has reserved commercial time on television and radio stations statewide. A second radio spot features restaurant owners saying they support 188 because they want the right to decide whether to permit smoking.
These campaign spots and others in the works are going unanswered by the initiative's foes, a struggling coalition of health groups and anti-smoking activists. Jack Nicholl, consultant to the No on 188 effort, said he hopes to air radio ads late in the campaign. Nicholl called the vice principal ad, which plays on people's desire to stop children from smoking, "the ultimate in cynicism."
The initiative would increase penalties for selling tobacco to minors, allowing for fines of up to $2,000. However, the initiative also is worded so that business owners can avoid fines by posting signs saying cigarette sales to minors are illegal, and having their employees sign statements saying they know it is against the law to sell cigarettes to children.
Belshe said she believes the initiative may repeal a tough new law aimed at stopping cigarettes to minors. The law, set to go into effect Jan. 1, would increase penalties to $6,000, authorize civil lawsuits against businesses that sell cigarettes to minors, and permit the Department of Health Services to join the enforcement effort.
Carried by Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), the bill was signed into law by Belshe's boss, Gov. Pete Wilson. Wilson and his Democratic challenger, Treasurer Kathleen Brown, oppose Proposition 188.
Hayden said he wrote the bill to ensure that the initiative would not overturn it. But if Proposition 188 passes, there is likely to be a court fight to determine whether Hayden's law will stand.
Although the impact on Hayden's bill is unclear, the initiative repeals 150 local ordinances that ban or significantly restrict cigarette vending machines, a major source of cigarettes for minors. The initiative would prevent local governments from passing new vending machines restrictions.