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Last year, when a New York state legislator proposed a “pre-emption” bill to repeal a host of tough local tobacco control measures, anti-tobacco activists expected Health Commissioner Dr. Barbara DeBuono to lead the charge against the legislation.

But DeBuono’s office remained oddly quiet. “[Tobacco] doesn’t even seem to be on the radar screen as a public health issue,” says Michael Perrin, director of government affairs at the American Lung Association of New York. What he and the rest of the anti-smoking community didn’t know was that Republican Gov. George Pataki had suppressed DeBuono’s efforts.

According to Russell Sciandra, former director of the health department’s Tobacco Control Program, DeBuono had intended to issue a statement denouncing the measure for gutting existing laws, such as New York City’s restaurant smoking ban and the state’s restrictions on free cigarette samples. Her office drafted two press releases, obtained by Mother Jones, but Pataki’s office refused to approve them.

In the first, dated June 19, 1995, DeBuono said the pre-emption bill “threatens the progress New York has made… With 30,000 New Yorkers dying each year from smoking-related illnesses, this bill is the wrong way to go.”

That afternoon, Sciandra says, DeBuono told him the governor’s office had told her not to make the announcement. DeBuono’s office then prepared a second release, toning down criticism of the pre-emption bill. The subsequent release trumpeted a planned statewide campaign warning of the dangers of secondhand smoke. Tucked in at the bottom were a couple of paragraphs opposing pre-emption. The governor’s office again rejected the press release, Sciandra says.

According to health department officials, this is normal protocol. “No press release on major issues goes out without the governor’s approval,” says Claudia Hutton, the department’s director of public affairs. “He hired [DeBuono] as his health care expert, listens to her advice, then makes his decision.”

When DeBuono later spoke out against pre-emption during a meeting of tobacco control advocates from the Commission for a Healthy New York, she ordered that Sciandra delete her comments from a newsletter article the organization planned to send its members.

“[Pataki] plans to emasculate tobacco control policy,” says Sciandra. “I think the public has a right to know what’s going on.” (In May 1996, Sciandra, a highly regarded tobacco control advocate and 22-year veteran of public health and cancer prevention work, was told to resign or be fired from the department. He resigned in June after being transferred to a department unrelated to his area of expertise.)

Why would Pataki want to suppress tobacco control efforts? Consider this: Philip Morris gave $25,000 to Pataki’s inaugural and transition funds after his election in 1994 and gave the New York GOP another $25,000 in June 1995. Pataki is also a protZgZ of Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), chair of the Republican National Senatorial Committee, which raises funds to help elect Republican senators. Tobacco interests gave the RNSC $678,100 between January 1995 and April 1996, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

While tobacco companies are taking a beating on the national level, they’re quietly pressuring governors and state legislators to stop grassroots efforts to control tobacco (see “Our Good Friend, the Governor,” May/June 1996).

The New York pre-emption bill never came to a vote, but a second pre-emption measure was proposed in January. Although the speaker of the Assembly blocked it in June, tobacco control advocates expect to see pre-emption raised again in the next session.

To date, the health department has remained mum.

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