TALLAHASSEE, Fla.. – Each year since his mother died of cancer in 1992, Martin Larsen pressed state lawmakers to toughen Florida's anti-smoking laws. Rebuffed repeatedly, he and his allies decided to go straight to the voters, and victory is now within sight.
Like anti-smoking activists in three other states, Larsen's coalition tried a previously uncommon strategy this year — launching a petition drive to put a tobacco-related proposal on the Nov. 5 ballot. In each state, activists hope voters will endorse steps that lawmakers declined to take.
Larsen is chairman of the campaign supporting Amendment 6, which would ban smoking in virtually all workplaces, including restaurants. His coalition collected more than a half-million signatures to make the ballot; a recent poll showed the measure with 2-to-1 support.
In three other states, anti-smoking activists collected enough signatures to put items on the ballot to provide more money for smoking prevention and health care.
Measures in Montana and Michigan would require the states to spend a larger share of their tobacco settlement money on health and anti-smoking programs. A measure in Missouri would accomplish this by quadrupling the cigarette tax from 17 cents to 72 cents per pack.
Arizona also has a ballot item that would raise the cigarette tax — from 58 cents to $1.18 per pack. But it was placed on the ballot by the Legislature, not through a citizen-led petition drive.
Officials of national anti-smoking groups are heartened by the success of the four petition drives, particularly the one in Florida.
"It became necessary to go to the voters because the tobacco industry has such a powerful control over the Legislature,'' said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "This is the only way to provide the citizens of Florida with the opportunity to have a say.''
Amendment 6 would outlaw smoking in restaurants — except for outdoor seating areas — and in enclosed workplaces, including employee break rooms. Exceptions are made for stand-alone bars, designated guest rooms in hotels, and home businesses that do not provide child care or health care.
State law now limits smoking in public places to designated smoking areas. Public places include government buildings, stores, restaurants, theaters and workplaces.
Restaurants have the option of designating up to 35 percent of their dining area as a smoking area; critics say that policy fails to protect employees from secondhand smoke.
A survey by Larsen's coalition, the Smoke-Free for Health Initiative, found that 70,000 Florida businesses allow smoking somewhere on their premises and 12,000 restaurants allow smoking.
Brendan McCormick, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA, said the cigarette manufacturer believes the proposed amendment goes too far but has no plans to campaign against it.
The Florida Restaurant Association, with about a quarter of Florida's 38,000 restaurants as members, opposes the amendment, saying it would infringe on private property rights.
If the ballot measures in Arizona and Missouri win approval, they would become the 20th and 21st states to raise cigarette taxes this year.
The measure in Missouri, which barely made the ballot after some signatures were invalidated, would raise an estimated $342 million annually for health care, scientific research, early childhood programs and smoking prevention.
Its supporters — a coalition of hospitals, health organizations and business groups — were frustrated that money from the state's share of the 1998 tobacco settlement was being used to help cover budget shortfalls rather than health-related programs.
The projected $151 million per year from the Arizona measure also would go to health and anti-smoking programs.
The citizen initiative in Montana would require a major shift in tobacco settlement money. Currently, 60 percent of Montana's annual $30 million share goes to the state treasury for general purposes; only 11 percent will go to the treasury if the initiative is approved.
Similarly, the Michigan initiative would ensure that 90 percent of the state's $300 million a year in tobacco settlement funds would go toward health care, smoking prevention and tobacco research. Currently, more than two-thirds of the settlement money is used to plug holes in the state budget and pay for the state's Merit Award scholarships.
Opponents, including Gov. John Engler, say the measure would circumvent the legislative process and place public money into the hands of private groups that are not overseen by the state.