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Activists push for Buffalo to set tough anti-tobacco legislation

Anti-tobacco activists last summer began a push for Buffalo to impose one of the nation's toughest laws regulating the sale and marketing of tobacco products.

Fourteen months later, a final draft of the legislation has yet to be written.

Advocates are waiting for city attorneys to make the next move, and some are convinced the sticking point involves fears that Buffalo would become embroiled in a costly court fight with the well-financed tobacco industry.

"The threat of a lawsuit is what's holding this up," said Anthony Billoni, coordinator of the Erie-Niagara Tobacco-Free Coalition.

Efforts to snare grants from foundations and other outside sources for a legal defense fund to help the city fend off a likely court challenge are taking longer than some had hoped. But the lead sponsor of the bill said he remains confident that Buffalo will eventually pass new restrictions involving tobacco sales and advertising.

"Rome wasn't built in a day," Masten Council Member Demone Smith said. "We've been having continuous dialogue on this issue."

The issue surfaced Thursday as young people from across the state marched in front of City Hall demanding that tobacco companies change what critics condemn as predatory in-store marketing tactics. About 70 young people from a group that calls itself Reality Check chanted: "We've seen enough. We want our change."

James Hazzard said the tobacco industry is using slick advertising to try to recruit his generation as replacement smokers.

Alden High School student William Rutkowski said even some packaging of tobacco products blatantly targets young people.

"I've noticed lately that cigarette and tobacco product packaging looks more and more like packs of gum or some candy that me and my friends might buy at the corner store. Is this on purpose? I, for one, absolutely think so," he said .

Studies have proved that exposure to in-store tobacco ads is a main cause of youth smoking, said Andrew Hyland, a research scientist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. One study indicated that advertising can be more influential in spurring young people to smoke than peer or parental smoking.

As the young people demonstrated outside City Hall, city officials said they have not given up on the tough regulations.

Under a draft bill that city lawmakers were considering, tobacco companies would have to pay an annual $1,000 user fee for every brand or subbrand of cigarette they distribute locally. The money would fund enforcement of a new licensing law that would affect all outlets that sell tobacco products. Other provisions include banning some new businesses from selling tobacco products and phasing out the sale of these products in all drugstores, bars, restaurants or on school properties in a few years.

Advertising for tobacco products would also be strictly regulated. Smith said the mere discussion of the new law has already produced tangible results. He said national tobacco companies have ordered distributors and retail outlets to remove cigarette ads from the windows of dozens of local stores.

But Hyland lamented that the tobacco marketing is "ubiquitous" in retail outlets across the state.

"Tobacco companies spend about a million dollars a day here in New York State to make sure that they're visible and prominently displayed in retail shops," he said. "That's a lot of money."

A typical retail outlet that sells tobacco products has an average of 19 ads or displays, Hyland said.

"It's not just in one spot or one place. It's wallpaper. It's all over the place." What's most disturbing about these figures, he said, is that 20 percent of the young people surveyed said the ads they see on a regular basis make it more likely that they will consider smoking.

email: bmeyer@buffnews.com