MADISON (AP) – State Sen. Fred Risser has been fighting against cigarettes for more than 50 years, but he says he’s concerned Wisconsin is now taking a step backward with its talk of allowing electronic cigarettes in bars and other public venues.
The Madison Democrat, the longest-serving member of any state legislature in the country, recalls introducing a bill in 1963 that would have barred children under 16 from buying cigarettes. Although the bill failed in committee, it was the beginning of Risser’s long anti-tobacco crusade that helped lead to smoking bans in the state Capitol in 1999 and indoor public places in 2010.
But Risser fears that those gains could be undone by a bill that would exempt electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, from the indoor smoking ban, The Capital Times reported in a story published Sunday.
One interest group that registered in support of the bill is RAI Services, formerly known as Reynolds American, one of the largest tobacco companies in the world. Risser said tobacco companies support the bill because they’re trying to reverse the decline in smoking in recent decades.
“It’s nothing more than an effort to increase consumers of smoking,” Risser said. “They’re trying to glamorize the idea of smoking to youth.”
E-cigarettes work by vaporizing a liquid mix of nicotine and other substances, such as flavoring, so smokers inhale and exhale a vapor rather than smoke.
Republican Sen. Glenn Grothman, the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation will prevent municipalities from imposing bans on the smoking devices. He said he’s just trying to “protect freedom from the irrational prejudices that may pop into the heads of local officials.”
Scott Stenger, a lobbyist for the Tavern League, which backs the bill, said people who oppose traditional cigarettes should be fine with the bill. He said the smoking ban was prompted by concern over the dangers of secondhand smoke, an argument that isn’t relevant for e-cigarettes.
But Risser said relaxing the ban sets a dangerous precedent. The bill approving indoor use of e-cigarettes “unwisely sends the message that maybe they’re not harmful,” he said.