Council revs up assault on smoking
The dawn of a new millennium has apparently not improved the Marlboro Man's prospects in New York City.
Word is City Council Speaker Peter Vallone (D-Queens) is looking to put more bite into the city's already stringent smoke-free workplace law.
An oversight hearing will be held late next month on tightening smoking restrictions on restaurants with 35 or fewer seats, something bound to raise the ire of the hospitality industry.
A crackdown is also under consideration for nightclubs and stand-alone bars, which up until now pretty much escaped the regulations.
Last week, city lawmakers gleefully upped the ante in the all-out crusade to keep cigarettes out of the hands of minors.
In a unanimous vote, the Council more than tripled the first-offense fine for retailers caught selling tobacco products to people who are under age.
The fine for the first violation now jumps from $300 to $1,000. The hit for a second offense quadruples from $500 to $2,000.
As part of the enforcement effort, the city will be making sure that offenders are unable to stay one step ahead of the sheriff by "flipping" their licenses to market tobacco products to relatives after they've been caught.
In the past this has been a common practice. Repeat violators have simply passed their license on to a family member to carry on in the same location.
The bill approved last week also carries a two-strikes-and-you're-out provision, meaning retailers can kiss their licenses good-bye if caught twice in the same year.
Anti-smoking activist Joe Cherner, head of a group called Coalition for a Smoke-Free City, says the city's mission has to be to prevent another generation from getting hooked on tobacco. With fewer customers the tobacco industry will suffer, says Cherner. But so be it. "The goal is to prevent addiction and disease," Cherner said.
Leaving aside what's happened to the tobacco industry at the national level, the past decade here in New York has been a stinging series of defeats for the purveyors of nicotine. Early on, the Council banned the practice of handing out free packages of cigarettes in promoting different brands.
At about the same time, all public schools were declared smoke-free zones and, for all practical purposes, the sale of cigarettes from vending machines was outlawed.
"Vending machines make no distinctions about who's buying the product," Cherner said. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) eventually got on board, ruling that cigarettes were not to be advertised on subway trains, buses and in subway stations.
The city, in turn, banned such ads on bus shelters and other outdoor property and in the mid-1990s, the sweeping restrictions on smoking in public places were put on the books. Most recently, there's been a crackdown on cigarette ads in areas where young people congregate. That law is now the subject of litigation.
On the national scene, a lawsuit brought by the attorneys general of most states, including New York, resulted in the tobacco industry agreeing to a huge settlement that will see New York collecting some $1 billion a year for the next quarter century.
Even with the tobacco industry clearly on the ropes, local officials still find themselves fighting rear-guard actions against some cigarette merchants trying to skirt laws against sales to minors. A recent Council survey found that more than half the stores checked sold to under-age customers.
"It's clear that stings and sweeps are not enough," said Karen Koslowitz (D-Queens), chairwoman of the Consumer Affairs Committee. "We're now taking steps to ensure that retailers comply with the law."
In the past two years, the Department of Consumer Affairs has mounted the largest anti-smoking teen enforcement program in the nation.
"Many merchants are getting the message that we won't tolerate illegal sales to minors," said Consumer Affairs Commissioner Jules Polonetsky. "But too many other merchants are continuing to flout the law because the current penalties are not effective."
A spokesman for Philip Morris, Brendan McCormick, said last week the firm supports the stiffer penalties as a way of bringing potential violators into line.
"We strongly support enforcement of minimum-age laws," he said. "And we remain committed to helping educate and train retailers to help them uphold those laws. We think the vast majority of New York City retailers share this commitment."
McCormick added that the industry backs reasonable fines for those who break the law. The industry also frowns on merchants flipping licenses as a way of staying in business. "We support a provision to keep repeat violators from changing the names of their business," he said.
But the industry official declined to comment on the sustained assault the industry has suffered under for the past decade.