One of the nation's toughest sets of laws regulating the sale and advertisement of tobacco products will go to the Buffalo Common Council for review this week, and a majority of lawmakers look favorably on new rules that would crack down on vendors irresponsibly marketing tobacco products.
Anti-smoking advocates claim the dozens of restrictions on marketing tactics and retailing activities could make Buffalo a catalyst for spurring other communities to adopt their own laws.
"We think that would be something to be proud of," said Hillary Clarke, the American Cancer Society's local director of advocacy, who has been lobbying city lawmakers in support of the plan. "Becoming a leader in the tobacco-control movement is a good thing."
Under the legislation, tobacco companies would have to pay a user fee for every brand of cigarette they distribute in the city, with the money going toward hiring new inspectors to enforce tougher laws. A draft of the bill requires manufacturers to pay $1,000 a year for every brand or sub-brand.
"Big tobacco should pay for enforcement," said Masten Council Member Demone A. Smith, sponsor of the legislation. "Why should taxpayers or local business people be saddled with these costs?"
The plan also would create a new city license for all stores or outlets selling tobacco products. While the fee would be nominal -- possibly even $1 a year -- it would make it easier for the city to shut down irresponsible retailers, sponsors say. The city also would limit the number of licenses available to new tobacco-selling businesses in hopes of gradually reducing the number of cigarette vendors.
Other provisions include:
*Banning some new businesses from selling tobacco products, including pharmacies, restaurants, bars, businesses that primarily serve minors, or businesses that are within 1,000 feet of schools.
*Beginning in 2014, no tobacco products could be sold at any drugstores, bars, restaurants, game rooms, or on school or college properties.
*Advertising for tobacco products would be strictly regulated. For example, no large outdoor tobacco product ads could be displayed at retail outlets near schools. In-store ads would have to displayed in black and white, and no images or cartoons could be used in large display ads. And the amount of space that tobacco ads occupy could not exceed the square footage of ads for all other products.
"We want to clean up some of the outrageous advertising," said K. Michael Cummings, chairman of the department of health behavior at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
"Right now, some stores are just littered with tobacco advertising," he continued, adding that some of the most pervasive ads are in Buffalo's most impoverished neighborhoods.
Violators could face fines of up to $500 for the first offense, and up to $2,000 for second citations. The city could yank licenses if a third offense occurs over a two-year span.
The president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores criticized the plan, accusing sponsors of trying to "leap frog" over the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. James Calvin said the FDA is already working on regulations involving tobacco retailing.
"I don't understand the rush to pre-empt the FDA," Calvin said. "The whole idea is to have strong, consistent, uniform regulations of tobacco sales across the country."
Calvin also contended that most local smokers buy cigarettes on Indian reservations, where vendors don't have to follow municipal laws. He questioned the fairness of burdening retailers with "additional layers of regulations" when "tax-free competitors" wouldn't have to follow them.
Does the law stand a chance of winning passage in City Hall?
The Buffalo News interviewed six of nine lawmakers, and all said they would seriously consider imposing new regulations to crack down on vendors that irresponsibly market tobacco products.
"I definitely think there's interest and support on the Council to look at something like this," South Council Member Michael P. Kearns said. "Smoking is habit-forming, and once young people start smoking, it's very difficult for them to quit."
While lawmakers won't see the proposed ordinance until Monday or Tuesday, most said they would likely favor at least some of the new regulations. But Majority Leader Richard A. Fontana and Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera said whatever law is passed must be fair to vendors.
"We can't put restrictions on businesses that are overly onerous," Fontana said.
Cummings denied that the effort is anti-business.
"We don't want to chase retailers out of Buffalo," he said. "We want responsible retailers to be here."
Mayor Byron W. Brown recently assured bill supporters during a private meeting that he backs the law, Cummings and Smith said.
The mayor's communications director confirmed that the mayor "supports the concepts" embraced in the plan. Still, mayoral spokesman Peter K. Cutler said there are logistical questions about some provisions that must be addressed.
"The mayor wants to have an opportunity to review details of the proposal with staff," Cutler said.
One concern, said Smith, is making sure that all regulations could withstand what some believe will be a likely legal challenge by tobacco companies.
"We are looking at trying to get local and outside groups that will band together to help defend communities as they are confronted by big tobacco's deep pockets and their lawyers," Cummings said.
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., one of the nation's largest cigarette manufacturers, did not return calls for comment.
Tougher restrictions on cigarette advertising are something that merit serious consideration, said North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. Still, he said there are existing regulations that, if enforced, would dramatically improve the outside appearances of many businesses that display signs in ways that violate city codes.
Smith agreed, but he said the city inspections unit doesn't have the staff to aggressively enforce provisions. The new law could generate as much as $300,000 a year from tobacco companies, said Smith, adding that the money would be used to hire inspectors who would focus exclusively on enforcing tobacco retailing rules.
"You can have millions of laws, but if there isn't an enforcement piece, they're ineffective," Smith said.