Clinton calls for new deal on tobacco Greater effort sought to halt teen smoking

September 18, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon and Lyle Denniston | Carl M. Cannon and Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton called yesterday for stronger incentives for cigarette makers to curtail teen-age smoking -- and said tobacco companies must raise cigarette prices by up to $1.50 a pack over 10 years if that goal is not met.

"Reducing teen smoking has always been America's bottom line. It must be the industry's bottom line," the president said. "It is not about how much money we can extract from the tobacco industry. It's about fulfilling our duties as parents and responsible adults to protect our children."

Clinton's remarks constituted his formal response to the landmark $368.5 billion proposed tobacco settlement hammered out in June between the state attorneys general, trial lawyers, health groups and the tobacco industry.

Speaking in the Oval Office, the president added new elements to the mix in addition to the tax increase. They include more protection against second-hand smoke, aid to tobacco farmers, a stronger role in regulating nicotine for the Food and Drug Administration and stricter prohibitions against advertising tobacco products or selling tobacco to minors.

Although anti-smoking activistsembraced the president's position enthusiastically -- and the tobacco industry did not dismiss it out of hand -- it was not clear yesterday whether the new conditions insisted on by the White House would help or hurt its chances of being accepted by Congress.

Some anti-smoking advocates said yesterday's developments spelled the end of the June deal hammered out with tobacco companies, but the president insisted that he was not attempting to derail the agreement, just build on it.

Clinton praised those who negotiated the agreement, saying that without them "we wouldn't be here." Later, at a photo session, he said that he was breathing "new life" into the tobacco talks.

Not everyone saw it this way on Capitol Hill. There seemed little chance of the June settlement being ratified -- in any form -- by Congress this year, and there were signs that congressional leaders were in no hurry to rubber-stamp an agreement presented to them as a done deal.

"I don't feel compelled that we have to pass this in two months," said Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the Republican point man on tobacco in the Senate. "I don't feel compelled that we have to pass this in 12 months."

All this makes it even more likely that the courts will have more to say about the outcome as additional state and class action suits come before them.

"They'll either get it right here, or they'll get it right in a court in Minnesota," said Minnesota Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III. "We go to trial in January."

Humphrey was referring to one of 40 multibillion-dollar lawsuits being brought by state governments against the tobacco industry seeking to recoup the cost of state-provided medical care for smoking-related illnesses. The first such suit is scheduled to come to trial in Texas, where jury selection is scheduled for Sept. 29.

Two other states -- Mississippi and Florida -- have settled such lawsuits with the tobacco companies. Minnesota's case appears be the suit most feared by the industry because it threatens a massive revelation of internal industry documents suggesting that it was well aware of the health hazards of smoking.

Maryland also has a $13 billion lawsuit pending against the industry. That suit is not likely to go to trial before January 1999.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. praised the president for demanding that the settlement be toughened. "I have always been concerned," he said, "that the settlement proposal would jeopardize many of the objectives Maryland set out to achieve" in suing the industry for smoking-related illnesses among Marylanders.

Also, the federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., is expected to rule this fall on the extent of the FDA's authority to regulate nicotine, and over cigarette advertising and promotion, under existing law.

Should the FDA's authority be upheld, that could diminish interest in Congress in enacting any version of the settlement deal.

Meanwhile, the president's proposals were praised by anti-smoking groups and health advocates -- many of whom were present in the Oval Office as the president spoke.

"That makes sense if you really care about reducing teen smoking," said former FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler, who called for such an increase this month. "It's in the right ballpark, and it's going to work."

Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, another prominent anti-smoking activist, said he thought the new conditions would achieve the goals of public health advocates. "On tobacco problems, I am usually pessimistic," Koop said. "I wouldn't have been as optimistic as this two months ago."

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