Lawmakers Consider Shifting Tobacco Oversight From Health Department to Alcohol Beverage Control Commission
Enforcement authority over the tobacco industry would shift from the state Department of Health Services to the Alcohol Beverage Control Commission under a proposal "brewing" in the state Legislature, the Los Angeles Times reports. Assembly member Herb Wesson (D-Culver City), who is poised to become the next Assembly speaker, is proposing the plan, which is still in its "formative stage," and no formal bill has been offered. DHS currently has oversight of tobacco sales, conducting "sting operations" to catch stores that sell tobacco products to minors and inspections to ensure that stores place all tobacco advertisements behind the counter. Wesson's plan also would create a new licensing fee for cigarette retailers. He said, "I'm trying to get the most bang for the buck. We're losing $200 million a year in black market tobacco products. We can deal with that if we create a tobacco licensing program in a uniform way statewide." He added that the size of the fee has yet to be determined.
DHS is opposing Wesson's plan, saying that the ABC may not have the "tools needed to do the job." Ken August, a DHS spokesperson, said that the ABC does not have regulating authority over stores that have the highest rate of sales of tobacco products to minors, such as doughnut and music shops. The Times reports that the ABC has also expressed concerns about the switch, saying that it lacks sufficient funding to handle its current duties of monitoring bars and liquor stores. ABC is funded solely by alcohol licensing fees set at 1978 rates. However, ABC Director Manny Espinoza said he would support the change if the department "received sufficient financial support." Wesson believes that the ABC already has the "structure in place" to monitor and license cigarette retailers.
Anti-tobacco activists are also expressing concern about the proposal, contending that plan is the result of a "new flood of money from tobacco companies to leading Democratic lawmakers." Philip Morris spent $2.2 million in the state during the 1999-2000 election cycle. Wesson accepted $25,000 from Philip Morris subsidiary Miller Brewing Co., although the Times reports that he does not consider it tobacco money. For his part, Wesson denies that plan has been influenced by tobacco companies. But Stan Glantz, a professor at UC-San Francisco, said that moving oversight of the industry from health departments "has been part of Big Tobacco's agenda for a decade." Glantz said, "There's no question in my mind that this is a Philip Morris bill." Philip Morris said it "supports efforts" to limit underage smoking, but is not involved in Wesson's proposal (Gronke, Los Angeles Times, 7/28).
In other tobacco news, Philip Morris is attempting to reverse the decision in the case of Richard Boeken, a smoker with lung cancer who successfully sued the company and was awarded $3 billion in exemplary damages. During the trial, evidence about Boeken's past, including his involvement in a "fraudulent oil and gas scheme" and two felony convictions, was excluded. Philip Morris says the evidence would speak to Boeken's credibility. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Charles McCoy has scheduled a hearing for the motion Aug. 6 (Levin, Los Angeles Times, 7/29).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.