Seibert: Smoking Ban Anniversary

Aug 31, 2015

As a new member of the Vermont House of Representatives in 1987, I was stunned to realize that smoking was allowed in the Statehouse, so I asked our Legislative Council for an opinion as to why a 1985 law banning smoking in the workplace wasn’t being enforced there.

It was determined that the Statehouse was a public place - not a workplace - so, with the help of many, legislation was introduced to change that - and in 1993 Vermont became the first state in the nation to pass a Clean Indoor Air Act

When I undertook to go up against the powerful and deeply entrenched tobacco industry, I could have used a tighter seatbelt for the long, rough ride. The Tobacco Institute, RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris had hired lobbyists in Vermont and they had also ingeniously acquired hundreds of grocery products – with the result that many grocers lobbied for them. A House colleague once claimed he’d never been lobbied by big tobacco. But when I asked him if he’d heard from any general store owners, he admitted he had.

By 1985 lung cancer deaths had surpassed the high rate of breast cancer deaths among women. RJ Reynolds himself is quoted as saying, "What I like about the cigarette is, it costs a penny to make, sells for a dollar and it’s addictive." Meanwhile, Philip Morris mailed elegant and blatantly sexist Virginia Slims Appointment Calendars to elected officials across the country. They also associated their Virginia Slims cigarette with women's liberation - remember, "You've come a long way, baby?" - and they sponsored the Virginia Slims Tennis Tournaments which were televised in a successful circumvention of the 1971 Congressional ban on TV cigarette advertising.

In 2005 a law was passed to eliminate an exemption that allowed bars and restaurants to permit smoking if profits were greater from alcohol and entertainment then from the sale of food. It also banned smoking in all private clubs so I actually thought about entering a witness protection program 0831-ATC-with an assumed identity.

Virginia Slims and the calendars are a thing of the past but Philip Morris, christened with their assumed identity, Altria, here at home, is thriving largely unregulated overseas and pouring millions into addicting and targeting the vulnerable at home and afar.

Big tobacco will never rest, nor should we, and as we celebrate tomorrow, we would do well to reflect on how we can apply the value of our hard work and success to the challenges — and the opportunities — that still lie ahead.