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Mayor of tiny village roots for big-city Bloomberg to win cigarette display battle

Mark Lennihan /AP

Cigarette packs, like these in a New York convenience store, will have to be hidden under a new law proposed by Mayor Bloomberg.

The mayor of a tiny village that tried to ban stores from displaying cigarettes has a message for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as he attempts to do the same thing.

Good luck.

Mayor Michael Kohut, of the Village of Haverstraw in upstate New York, said the town board had to repeal its ordinance after Big Tobacco came after them with a federal lawsuit that would have cost the community -- population 11,000 -- hundreds of thousands in legal fees.

"They brought their full forces to bear and it was going to be a long, drawn-out, expensive process." Kohut said Tuesday. "I said unless someone wants to pay for this, I can't pass this onto my village."

As part of the settlement, the town rescinded an ordinance that would have forced retailers to keep tobacco products out of public view.

Andrew Gombert/EPA

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to force stores to hide tobacco products. A small-town mayor who tried to do the same thing says Bloomberg should be ready for a legal battle.

Lawyers who represented a retailers' group and tobacco companies in the case, including prominent First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams, did not return calls.

But it seems likely that if Bloomberg's proposed measure passes the City Council and is signed into law, it will face a similar legal challenge on grounds that it violates shopkeepers' freedom of speech.

"We're considering all the options, from political to legal," said Brad Gerstman, counsel to the New York Association of Grocery Stores, who noted that Bloomberg's recent efforts to ban super-size sodas and force stores to display gruesome anti-smoking ads have been shot down.

"The only people who can put up a fight are big industries," Gerstman said of the city's public-health crusade. "The soda industry has won and tobacco has won but the city is notorious for grinding people down."

The mayor -- who has been lampooned as Nanny Bloomberg by some critics -- has championed health reforms for a decade. His initiatives include banning trans fats, forcing restaurants to post calorie counts, pressuring hospitals to remove junk food from vending machines, and making baby formula less accessible on maternity wards.

He asked restaurants to reduce salt by 25 percent and pushed through new rules that sharply limit the sale of sugary drinks bigger than 16 ounces. The latter was just struck down by judge who called it "arbitrary," and the city is appealing.

While obesity is one obsession, smoking is just as big a target. In 2002, the city banned it in bars and restaurants and in 2011, it was stamped out at parks and beaches.

The mayor said his efforts are paying off: life expectancy in the city is now three years longer than it was a decade ago.

The latest proposed law is aimed at reducing teen smoking. The mayor and his health advisers argue that displaying tobacco products near candy and groceries sends young people the message there's nothing wrong with smoking and increases the chance they'll try it.

Kohut agrees with his big-city counterpart.

"Anything we can do as government to prevent teenage smoking is a good thing. I watched my mother get sick and die from smoking-related disease," he said. "I felt good making an effort but I'm not Don Quixote swinging at windmills."

New York City has deeper pockets than Haverstraw, and the mayor has an entire Law Department at his disposal. In a statement Tuesday, the agency said because concealing cigarettes cuts down on smoking among kids and adults trying to kick the habit, "the proposed regulations are consistent with the First Amendment."

The New York Association of Convenience Stores, a plaintiff in the Haverstraw case, said it's reviewing the proposed law.

"It's premature to indicate whether any legal action is warranted," said the group's president, Jim Calvin.

Gerstman said he's hopeful the proposal won't be approved even even though the head of the City Council said she was "very open" to it.

"The mayor has gone into a nutty world of radical social agenda," he said. "I'm not certain the City Council in an election year will support it."

In Haverstraw, the mayor will be watching closely -- and rooting for Bloomberg.

"If the city prevails, I would think you would see a flood of communities pass something like this," Kohut said. "We’d be happy to pick up the gauntlet."


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