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    State asks for halt to cigarette coupons

    Butterworth says Philip Morris' promotion flouts spirit of settlement.


    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 20, 2001

    ST. PETERSBURG -- Attorney General Bob Butterworth said Thursday his office is asking the Philip Morris tobacco company to stop distributing coupons for cigarette samples in Florida.

    Butterworth was in the bay area Thursday to speak before the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club.

    The Attorney General's Office will draft a letter to Philip Morris expressing disappointment that the company is operating outside the spirit of the tobacco settlement, said Jim Peters, special counsel to the attorney general.

    On Sunday the Times reported that Philip Morris representatives have been distributing coupons for free packs of cigarettes in grocery and convenience stores in the bay area, around the state and across the country. The company's representatives distributed coupons at a convenience store across the street from Countryside High School in April.

    One key restriction of the multistate settlement is a ban on free samples of cigarettes in places where people under 21 are admitted. Although that is not a part of Florida's settlement, state officials still question the campaign.

    "From my perspective, it pushes the margin," Peters said last week.

    While at Tiger Bay, Butterworth, the highest-ranking Democrat in Florida, criticized state legislators for filtering tobacco settlement funds into about $2.5-billion worth of tax relief during the last two years.

    "The money was meant for worthy projects, but instead we wind up with tax breaks," he said. "Of course, tax breaks are good politics."

    Butterworth said the money should have been directed toward public schools and health care.

    "We had an opportunity and it was an opportunity lost," he said.

    This year, the Legislature rewarded owners of stocks and bonds with a $355-million intangibles tax break on investments. A tax on wine and spirits was also lifted.

    "All but one of the people I've asked would trade health care for the young and old for the tax breaks," he said.

    Butterworth said the only person who noticed a difference after the tax breaks was a bar owner in Sarasota who profited when the 10-cent wine and spirits tax was lifted.

    Butterworth also answered a question about fairness during presidential vote counting.

    "I'm very troubled about how the election was done," he said. "I believe it was a virtual tie."

    Butterworth said he made sure absentee ballots from military personnel without a postmark were not discarded, but opened to determine whether they were sent on time or not.

    The vote-counting controversy doesn't trace back to conspiracy as much as an inaccurate, antiquated voting system, Butterworth said.

    "Both sides did the best they could," he said.

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