Smoke signals Tobacco politics: Clinton proposal shows how far anti-smoking forces have come.

September 19, 1997

A FEW MONTHS ago, the prospects of strong political support for increasing taxes on cigarette packs by $1.50 or more would have seemed unlikely. Indeed, many observers considered the $368.5 million agreement negotiated with tobacco companies a huge victory for the anti-smoking movement.

Maybe it was -- then. But public opinion is shifting against tobacco, and that landmark agreement is now all but dead.

After weeks of ambivalence on the tobacco deal, President Clinton weighed in this week with a call for much stiffer payments and penalties for tobacco companies. The president stressed -- rightly -- that the primary aim of any agreement should be to reduce the number of young people who begin smoking. He also said the proposed agreement does not go far enough to ensure that tobacco companies actually do that. As a result, those companies will be paying much more than they would have under the earlier settlement.

Clearly this is a big victory for public health advocates, who have long pointed to tobacco as a key culprit in undermining the health of millions of people. But the tobacco industry contributed to its own fate by making adroit use of its high-paid lobbyists and legislative muscle to slip a $50 billion tax break for cigarette manufacturers into balanced budget legislation during the summer.

That legislative maneuver would have further reduced the cost to tobacco companies of the national settlement. The House repealed the measure by voice vote on Wednesday; last week, (( the Senate voted it out, 95-3. The exposure of the tax break won no friends for the industry -- and helped ensure a friendlier reception for higher proposed tax increases.

It appears now that anti-smoking forces have both momentum )) and public opinion on their side. Where once the question was whether tobacco companies could ever be held accountable for the damage their product causes, the issue now is how heavy the penalties will be. President Clinton is right: Any tobacco agreement must be judged by the results -- reducing the numbers of young smokers by significant margins.

Pub Date: 9/19/97

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