Congress' bribe of Big Tobacco deserves to die a timely death

April 13, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Thanks to the incredible arrogance and political stupidity of tobacco industry bigwigs, Americans may be relieved of the necessity of swallowing a needless bribe to get more protection for their kids against Big Tobacco's predatory practices.

That, after all, was what the now-scuttled proposal to put an annual cap on the industry's liability in damage suits brought against cigarette makers was all about.

In return for accepting greater restrictions on promotion of tobacco products, especially to the young, and much higher federal taxes on cigarettes, the industry was to have received from Congress a degree of protection from such suits.

How tobacco stands to lose

To understand what such protection would have meant to the tobacco industry, you only had to ask yourself why it would agree, as it already had in a settlement with state attorneys general last June, to shell out $368 billion to the states suing its members for repayment of smoking-induced health care costs.

The sum, to be paid over 25 years, seemed at first blush to be astronomical, until you caught on that the industry agreed to pay it only because it stood to lose much more without protection from mounting lawsuits around the country.

When Congress and President Clinton stepped in and significantly upped the ante in this case of corporate bribery, demanding more restrictions, an indemnity of $506 billion, higher per-pack prices and less protection against lawsuits, the industry insisted no deal was better for it than that one. So, for the time being at least, we are back to square one, according to industry spokesman Steven Goldstone, chief executive officer of RJR Nabisco, which owns the Reynolds tobacco empire.

No sympathy

But Mr. Goldstone is kidding himself if he believes he and his colleagues can resume their fight with the states, the federal government and anti-smoking activists where it left off at the time of the original settlement. Too much damaging new information about the industry's plans for targeting kids for promotional campaigns, and tobacco executives' deceptions about them, has come to light for that to happen.

It is preposterous to think that sympathy will be generated by full-page newspaper ads that say "we agreed to change our business . . . not to go out of business," and launch scare tactics about "17 new federal bureaucracies" and creation of "a black market in tobacco products."

Mr. Clinton demonstrated the long road back faced by the tobacco industry by greeting with a mocking comment Mr. Goldstone's declaration that any deal between the feds and the industry was dead. He couldn't imagine, Mr. Clinton said, that the tobacco companies were thinking of going back to peddling cigarettes to children.

"I'm not trying to put them out of business," he said. "But I am trying to put them out of the business of selling tobacco to children."

Both the president and Sen. John McCain, chief architect of the tougher tobacco settlement deal that the industry has rejected, said they believed the industry would reconsider once its leaders realized that Congress was going to go ahead with anti-smoking legislation whether they acquiesced in it or not.

Guaranteed survival

The last thing the tobacco industry needs right now is to appear to be returning to its arrogant and deceptive ways after nearly a year of trying to reduce its public image as a money-grabbing business unconcerned about the health hazards clearly established in use of its products.

In the end, you can bet that the industry will decide that it can survive after all under whatever conditions are laid down by Congress. If anything, what is in jeopardy now is the bribe of a cap on liability against smoker claims that it would have gotten under the pending deal.

An irate Congress may decide now that it is not going to offer any such bribe after all.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 4/13/98

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