Florida was a leader in fighting Big Tobacco – now the Legislature is threatening that progress

Gov. Lawton Chiles famously fought Big Tobacco

Ever since the late Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles led a successful fight against Big Tobacco, Florida has been a national leader in anti-smoking efforts.

Under Chiles, Florida was one of the first states in 1997 to successfully sue tobacco companies for decades of fraud and racketeering. In 2006, voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment directing a portion of the multi-million-dollar settlement be used for a comprehensive tobacco education and anti-smoking program.

The Tobacco Free Florida campaign has produced significant results, particularly with teen-agers. In 2007, 14.5 percent of high-school students were smokers. But that dropped to 4.2 percent by 2017, well below the national rate of 7.6 percent, according to state data.

“Florida has always been at the forefront of tobacco prevention,” the Tobacco Free Florida campaign said in a recent statement. “Today, fewer teens than ever are smoking regular cigarettes. We cannot allow Big Tobacco, an industry that lied to the public for decades, to erase this progress.”

But with only a few days left in the 2019 Legislature, legislation is threatening to reverse that progress.

In a 71-40 vote on Monday, the House sent a bill (HB 1299) to the Senate that would wipe out the ability of local governments to regulate cigarettes and other tobacco products.

If it becomes law, it would eliminate Alachua County’s recent decision to raise the age for tobacco use to 21, up from the state limit of 18.

But it would also negate a host of other local tobacco regulations. For instance, Tallahassee prohibits tobacco companies from offering samples within two blocks of playgrounds, schools, colleges and fraternity houses. Orlando bans tobacco advertising on transit benches or shelters. Jacksonville prohibits tobacco signs at athletic fields.

Rep. Spencer Roach, the Lee County Republican who is sponsoring the House bill, says the measure is aimed at providing “uniform” regulation of tobacco products across the state, while avoiding a “patchwork” of local regulations. Roach says the state can impose similar regulations for tobacco products that have been used by Florida cities and counties.

But anti-smoking advocates say the House pre-emption legislation would undermine the state’s efforts to prevent teen-agers from taking up smoking.

“Big tobacco wants to advertise and market as they please,” said Matt Jordan, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society.

Jordan says if the state eliminates the ability of cities and counties to control tobacco marketing, it could result in more aggressive efforts to lure younger Floridians into smoking.

For example, the House bill would wipe out a St. Lucie County rule that prevents convenience stores and other establishments from placing tobacco products, e-cigarettes or liquid nicotine in open displays. The rule confines the products to restricted areas, such as behind counters.

“We want them behind the counter. We want to make sure that these products aren’t being marketed, these deadly products aren’t being just forced or shoved in our kids’ faces,” Jordan said.

Jordan also says the House bill is a problem because it seeks to eliminate local tobacco regulations on marketing without any effort to establish state standards.

“It’s not like we’re just choosing state law over local law with the preemption because there are no state regulations around how tobacco companies can market. We’re choosing not having any regulations or having them,” Jordan said.

Meanwhile, the Senate on Monday began debating a bill (SB 1618) that would establish 21 as the statewide age for using tobacco products.

But the Senate backed off a plan to eliminate city and county regulations on marketing tobacco products.

The Senate also rejected an effort to keep the smoking age for cigars at 18, while raising the age for cigarettes to 21.

Kevin O’Flaherty, a lobbyist for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, says Florida was the only state among those contemplating a move to raise the smoking age to 21 that also considered a lower limit for cigars.

He says keeping a lower age for cigar use would open the door for companies that market smaller cigars, which are like cigarettes, to teen-agers. He says the little cigars are cheaper than cigarettes and can be infused with fruit flavors. Federal law prohibits cigarettes from using fruit flavors, but not cigars.

“You raise the age of sale for cigarettes to 21 and leave (cigars) out, you’ve just told kids what to buy,” O’Flaherty said.

Sen. David Simmons, a Seminole County Republican who is sponsoring the Senate bill, says his legislation is facing opposition. He says he supported amendments to back off the local-government preemption and to raise the age for cigar use to 21 as part of an effort to keep his bill “alive.”

Lloyd Dunkelberger
Lloyd Dunkelberger has been covering Florida government for over three decades. He’s reported and edited in Tallahassee for the New York Times Regional Newspapers group, Florida Politics, and the News Service of Florida. He grew up in Jacksonville and Palm Beach County and got his journalism degree at the University of Florida.

1 COMMENT

  1. Is there any follow-up to this? After reading this article from last week we are left hanging as to what did or did not happen after that. Please update the article. Thanks!

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