Banner season on Hill for tobacco, alcohol

August 13, 1999|By Ronald Brownstein

FOR PARENTS otherwise eager to shovel their children out of the house and back into the classroom, here are some numbers worth a moment's pause:

More than half of all 12th-graders report having used alcohol within the past month. More than one-third of 12th-graders have smoked cigarettes within the past month. For people 15 to 24, the second leading cause of death (after accidents) is murder -- fully 85 percent committed with a gun.

Ever since the high school massacre in Littleton, Colo., last April, politicians everywhere have insisted that government must do more to help parents raise children. Almost daily, Congress rings with speeches about protecting children from harmful influences in our culture.

When it comes to some of the most pernicious influences that parents must confront every day, Congress has taken a dive. Despite all the speeches about protecting kids, it has been a great season on Capitol Hill for the tobacco and alcohol industries -- and even the gun lobby may escape largely unscathed. This may be a good year for moralizing but it's a boom time for what some call the sin industries -- tobacco, alcohol and guns.

Since Littleton, the most tangible step Congress has taken to protect children from harmful cultural influences is to nudge President Clinton into authorizing a federal inquiry into whether Hollywood markets violence to teens. That's a good idea. But the Republican Congress' eagerness to challenge the mostly Democratic entertainment industry only underscores its failure to confront these three GOP-leaning interests.

The failure is perhaps most abject on tobacco. Last year, after a titanic tobacco industry lobbying campaign, the Senate rejected legislation from Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, to fight youth smoking.

Since then, the GOP leadership has shown utterly no interest in revisiting the problem.

But ignoring teen smoking won't make it go away. The annual University of Michigan "Monitoring the Future" survey shows that, despite a small drop in 1998, almost two-thirds of 12th-graders, nearly three-fifths of 10th-graders and nearly half of eighth-graders smoked in the past year. That's far greater than annual marijuana use .

Anti-smoking bill

The heart of Mr. McCain's bill was a tax increase meant to discourage kids from smoking by raising the price of a pack of cigarettes. The bill's defeat showed that the tax route is a dead end. But that is not the only option.

After the legislation failed in the Senate, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, negotiated with House Commerce Committee chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr., a Virginia Republican, a thoughtful compromise to discourage teen smoking without raising taxes.

First, the package would have written into law the Food and Drug Administration's regulations (now snarled in a court challenge) to control the marketing of cigarettes to young people. Then it would have required companies that failed to reduce underage consumption of their brands to raise their prices -- encouraging the firms themselves to fight youth smoking. "We could make enormous advances with this package," says Mr. Waxman.

Yet so great is the tobacco industry's influence in the GOP -- in the last election it gave nearly 80 percent of its $8.6 million in political contributions to Republicans -- that Newt Gingrich, then the House Speaker, snuffed out the compromise last year. It remains off the table today.

On teen drinking, the social problem is arguably even greater -- and the political problem even broader. In the latest University of Michigan study, more eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders reported drinking in the last 30 days than smoking. Almost one-third of 12th-graders said that they had consumed five drinks or more at least once in the last two weeks. Ominously, that number has increased every year since 1993.

Yet, under intense lobbying from the alcohol industry, both the House Appropriations Committee and the full Senate earlier this summer rejected proposals to fund anti-teen drinking public service ads from the huge pot of money set aside for advertising to fight drug abuse.

Token campaign

Compared with the tobacco companies, the alcohol industry distributes its political contributions more evenly between the parties and it showed in the key Senate vote -- 10 Democrats joined 48 Republicans to kill the ads. (It didn't help that Barry McCaffrey, the administration's top anti-drug official, didn't want to share the money either.) Now the surgeon general is looking at no more than a token advertising campaign against teen drinking.

The gun lobby, meanwhile, may have to accept some new curbs this year -- but it has already dodged the most serious proposals to reduce youth access to firearms. House-Senate conferees now fashioning a final bill are likely to require that all new guns come with a child-safety lock and to impose some background checks on gun-show sales.

But the latter provision may be so weak that Mr. Clinton will veto the bill. And even if he signs it, it will not contain the most significant measures on kids and guns that he proposed after Littleton. Neither chamber even considered Mr. Clinton's proposals to raise the age of handgun ownership from 18 to 21 and to hold adults criminally responsible if they recklessly provide children with guns.

Not surprisingly, these failures to confront the sin industries can largely be traced to money: according to the Center for Responsive Politics, gun, alcohol and tobacco interests contributed $18.8 million in last year's federal elections, 70 percent of it to Republicans. The tobacco industry spent another $106 million lobbying Congress, with guns and alcohol kicking in $23 million.

Ronald Brownstein reports from the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau.

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