Snuffing out an addiction

October 10, 1997|By Robert Reno

THOSE WHO DECIDE to run with the hounds have no complaint when they catch fleas, and those who think they can strike happy bargains in the public interest with tobacco companies ought to expect to get fleeced.

This is the lesson being learned as Congress, the president and the attorneys general of 39 states and the commonwealth of Puerto Rico dither about whether to go ahead with a $368.5 billion settlement. It's offered as a sort of weird treaty by which the Tobacco Republic agrees to become America's staunch ally against the evil of smoking.

For proof of this, we need look no further than the few crucial sentences that wandered -- fatherless, it would seem -- into legislation implementing the recent budget settlement between Republican leaders and President Clinton. It had the effect of reducing the cost of tobacco's $368.5 billion settlement by $50 billion.

No one's confessed to putting this disgraceful measure into the budget bill. But absent a DNA test, we have to rely on evidence that it had Newt Gingrich's eyes and nose, Trent Lott's chin and ears and that everybody in Washington knew they put it there.

Anyway, the strategy of the tobacco companies now seems clear: They win the immeasurable prize of immunity in perpetuity from lawsuits. They continue pouring money into political campaigns, careful to lopsidedly favor their natural allies, the Republicans, but being prudent enough to spread around some chicken feed to friendly Democrats.

And in the 25 years they have to pay their $368 billion settlement, they find every way imaginable to reduce and shift its true cost while, with great subtlety, using every trick they know to preserve their addictive market.

There may be honorable reasons to hold our noses and be polite to the Chinese in the interest of preserving our markets there and in hopes of persuading them to become a house-broken power.

And there may be reasons to swallow hard and treat Gerry Adams as something better than a repellent character if it is the only way to stop the slaughter in Northern Ireland.

But it is craven in the extreme and consummately hypocritical to pretend that Congress can't squish the tobacco companies like a bug if it ever had the guts to. That the tobacco lobby isn't still busy buying and selling the political system it is so graciously pretending to bow to, that government needs and must seek the good will of the tobacco companies in the interest of public health. We need Big Tobacco like we need a plague of cholera.

The problem with this whole idea of extracting money and promises from the tobacco companies is that it perversely supposes government can honorably do business with cigarette manufacturers -- when its only honorable long-term goal must be their extinction.

The $368.5 billion pot of gold offered by tobacco companies is a thin gruel when you stretch it out over 25 years. Imagine how it will be frittered away in the treasuries of the various states, and how the companies will end up shifting the cost to others.

Robert Reno is a Newsday columnist.

Pub Date: 10/10/97

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