Senators would rather fight public than switch

March 26, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

As Will Rogers might have said, "I never met a man I didn't like, except those sellouts on the Maryland Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee."

By a vote of 7 to 6, those brave souls have given us their solution to the killing effects of cigarettes: Smoke 'em if you got 'em, and we'll pass out the oxygen tents when you need 'em if we can hear your raspy cries echoing down noisy hospital corridors as we traipse off to the bank.

The senators' vote Tuesday rebuffed efforts of health advocates - that's a catch-phrase for doctors, nurses, concerned parents, confused teen-agers, the short of breath, the hopelessly addicted, the ones who wish they had a spare lung, the dying worried about loved ones they're leaving behind, the mourners at graveside - to raise taxes on cigarettes by $1.50 a pack, backed by evidence in other, more enlightened states that, if you can keep kids from smoking until age 20, you'll almost certainly keep them from smoking their entire lives.

While we mistakenly imagined that politicians examined polls (one recent survey showed Maryland voters support the $1.50 cigarette tax increase by better than 2-to-1; another poll says a large majority would change their vote if they knew one candidate supported the cigarette tax increase while another did not), we're left wondering: Don't these folks at least read the newspapers? Not the obituary pages? Not the news out of Washington, where tobacco executives are coming out with their hands up from the last wisps of smoke they've been hiding behind?

In recent months, we have Philip Morris, the nation's largest tobacco company, caught with 20 years worth of internal memos showing it monitored the habits of youngsters as young as 12 because "today's teen-ager is tomorrow's potential regular customer" - all the while publicly claiming they were only targeting adults and wouldn't dream of targeting impressionable kids.

We have R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the folks who gave us Joe Camel to seduce the young, with memos showing marketing aimed at teen-agers at least since the 1970s while previously denying such efforts. (They should be forced to run ads with Joe Camel on a respirator.)

And we have a parade of tobacco executives hauled down to Capitol Hill hearings, where they find themselves routinely caught in the most wretched, murderous lies.

Example: While executives have repeatedly denied that they manipulate or control nicotine levels, thousands of uncovered internal documents show an industry obsessed with its addictive effects and pouring millions into research to "manipulate," "control" and "augment" nicotine.

Asked if he was ashamed about targeting young people, Geoffrey C. Bible, chairman of Philip Morris, replied, "We should not be marketing cigarettes to young people. I would be horrified if they did. I am ashamed of it, but I don't know the circumstances under which it was done."

"Circumstances?" Increased profits would be the big one. Bible's vTC copping a plea, because he's only been chief executive since 1994. But his industry's known about tobacco's killing effects for at least several decades, and it's preparing to pay dearly for all the years it kept them a secret.

Under one legal settlement proposed by 40 state attorneys general who sued the industry to recover tobacco-related Medicaid costs, the industry would pay penalties of $368.5 billion. That's billion with a b. A billion is a million dollars, a thousand times. And the tobacco companies are ready to pay this amount 368.5 times over, and consider it a steal.

Health advocates (see paragraph 3 for partial list), aware of this sellout, say it's not nearly enough, not for the damages already inflicted, not for the history of lying, and not for the need to stop tomorrow's potential smokers.

But the Maryland Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee thinks a $1.50 tax on a pack of cigarettes is too much.

"I'm very disappointed," said Montgomery County Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., the bill's chief sponsor. "It's an issue where the public is way ahead of the legislature."

And the legislature seems way behind the current news: that tobacco executives have historically lied about their products' health effects, lied about their addictive effects, lied about their marketing and advertising techniques - and then, caught in their lies, expect to escape with nothing more than a fine, when they should be prosecuted like any other drug dealers.

What's that make members of the Budget and Taxation Committee? Accessories after the fact, which ought to carry its own penalties. At the voting booth, at least.

Pub Date: 3/26/98

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