Higher cigarette tax could prevent teens from smoking, Gore says White House pressures Congress for legislation

March 24, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- An increase in the cigarette tax of $1.10 a pack, coupled with sharp curbs on the sale and marketing of tobacco, would prevent nearly 3 million teen-agers -- about 47,000 of them in Maryland -- from taking up smoking over the next five years, according to figures unveiled yesterday by Vice President Al Gore.

Gore used the White House study to ratchet up pressure on Congress to pass sweeping tobacco control legislation.

"I hope [these statistics] will build the momentum necessary to pass bipartisan legislation this year," Gore told attorneys general from more than a dozen states, including J. Joseph Curran Jr. of Maryland, in a conference call.

The new study also comes on the eve of key votes in the Maryland General Assembly intended to bolster Curran's lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

The Assembly's Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and House Judiciary Committee could vote as early as today to allow Curran to use medical statistics to prove that smoking-related diseases have cost Maryland taxpayers $3 billion. Without the law, Curran might be forced to prove a link between tobacco and each of the thousands of Marylanders who, he contends, have been sickened or killed by tobacco.

A new state liability law, Curran said, would strengthen Maryland's hand in pursuing a lawsuit slated for trial in April 1999 or an out-of-court settlement that could bring the state billions of dollars. Such a law might be critical, because federal legislation designed to settle all outstanding state lawsuits is still a long shot.

"I cannot afford to put all my eggs in the federal basket," Curran said.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has the formidable task of crafting a tobacco bill with broad support, had hoped to unveil legislation tomorrow. But with key issues unresolved, the bill's debut has again slipped. A spokeswoman for McCain's committee said senators still hope to produce a bill before they leave April 2 for a two-week recess.

The House has yet to begin meaningful work on tobacco legislation. On an unusually brief congressional calendar, time may be running out.

"Congress will probably pass a modest, face-saving bill designed to discourage teen smoking, maybe a small tobacco tax hike," said Stephen J. Wayne, a government professor at Georgetown University. "Then they'll go home."

That would be a far cry from the sweeping $368.5 billion deal forged between tobacco companies and the states last summer. A face-saving teen-smoking bill would also fall short of the president's demand for a big tobacco tax increase, strict new regulations on tobacco and broad limits on cigarette ads and marketing.

White House officials hope their study will nudge along far-reaching tobacco legislation.

Administration researchers examined the effect of a $1.10-a-pack cigarette tax that would rise with inflation to $1.24 by 2003. They assumed that every 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes would yield a 7 percent decline in youth smoking. They then calculated that sharp curbs on tobacco billboards, vending machines, magazine ads and availability would cut teen smoking by a further 15 percent.

All told, such steps would cut teen smoking nationally by 42 percent in 2003, the first year the controls would be completely instituted under the president's plan. By then, nearly 3 million teens would have been dissuaded from taking up the habit, saving 991,000 lives, the White House said.

Youth smoking in Maryland would decline by 42 percent, the national average. Some 47,000 teens would forgo smoking by 2003, saving 16,000 from smoking-related deaths, researchers predicted.

White House officials insisted those figures were based on conservative assumptions, but some attorneys general appeared skeptical.

Oklahoma Attorney General W. A. Drew Edmondson noted that the impact predicted by the White House was far more immediate than forecasts made by the attorneys general less than a year ago.

Those forecasts anticipated a 60 percent decline in youth smoking over 10 years, Curran said.

Pub Date: 3/24/98

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