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Tobacco wins a round in the Legislature

A day after losing an important court decision, the tobacco industry savored the smooth taste of success Monday in the Florida Legislature.

A House committee voted down 5-3 a bill that would have allowed local governments to create more stringent anti-smoking laws. The vote is likely to doom similar legislation pending in the Senate.

The bill was opposed by both tobacco companies and restaurant owners, who feared that tougher anti-smoking laws would hurt business.

"It would be a regulatory nightmare. It would be an economic nightmare," said Frank Messersmith, a lobbyist for the Florida Restaurant Association.

The bill would have allowed local counties to strengthen state smoking laws, which currently require 35 percent of restaurant space be set aside for non-smokers.

Proponents said the bill would return power to local governments, allowing them to make the decision on how strict smoking laws should be. But tobacco industry officials predicted a hodgepodge of conflicting ordinances between cities. Smoking could be outlawed in one restaurant and legal in another nearby.

"There you are, some poor tourist, who just got in from Miami," said John French, a Phillip Morris lobbyist. "Each time you'd have to stop you'd say, now what am I going to do?"

Phillip Morris and other tobacco companies suffered a blow Monday after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to get involved in their effort to halt Florida's lawsuit against the industry. The state is suing the industry to recover $1.4-billion spent to take care of Medicaid patients with tobacco-related illnesses.

Rep. Fred Lippman, D-Hollywood, noted that he has frequently worked to pass clean air legislation. But he voted against this proposal, he said, because it would have broken up the state's uniform smoking code.

"What they attempted to do is fracture good state policy," he said.