WASHINGTON — THE latest smoke signals coming from Capitol Hill, the Clinton administration, and state governments are alarming America's hugely profitable tobacco industry.
Tobacco interests now are threatened on at least five fronts, including efforts by health reformers to slap taxes of up to $2 on every pack of cigarettes. Other federal officials talk of regulating tobacco as an addictive drug.
The growing political offensive against the industry could seriously threaten its domestic revenues. It also puts at risk what some 46 million Americans consider their right to light up their cigarettes, cigars, and pipes in public.
Hearings in the House, which have drawn extensive media coverage, resume today as critics in Congress try to ratchet up public pressure on lawmakers and government regulatory agencies.
Cigarette companies are fighting back with a legion of lobbyists and an expensive advertising campaign in leading newspapers. But spokesmen for the $50 billion industry agree they are under an unprecedented siege.
John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), predicts some of the earliest and most important antitobacco action will come from the states. ASH supports rules, such as those proposed in Maryland, which would prohibit smoking in virtually all work-places.
``We will almost certainly get [new regulations] from Maryland,'' Mr. Banzhaf predicts. ``The only thing that could stop it would be a lawsuit, and there may be a delay for legislative review.''
The courts are emerging as another critical battleground. On Monday, Mississippi filed a lawsuit demanding that tobacco companies pay the state for $200 million a year it spends on tobacco-related health care.
The suit, believed to be the first of its kind, named 13 tobacco firms, six tobacco wholesalers, several trade associations, and even public relations consultants who work with tobacco interests.
Demands for action grow
These state actions come as the clamor grows in the nation's capital to attack tobacco interests from all sides - political, financial, regulatory, and legal. Democrats, who control both Congress and the White House for the first time since 1980, say this year's efforts could be decisive. Republicans, less-inclined toward regulation, are expected to make significant gains in this year's congressional elections, which would give them the power to block the antitobacco effort.
Thomas Lauria, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, says the most important issue currently before Congress is the 75 cent-per-pack excise tax proposed by President Clinton to help pay for health care reform. Other officials in Washington support an even larger tax, ranging up to $2 a pack. The steep tax would serve two purposes: to raise federal revenues and to discourage smoking. Young people and low-income Americans would be hardest hit - a positive factor to many lawmakers. Without a steady stream of new, young smokers, industry sales would wither. Longer-term, however, even greater federal obstacles loom against tobacco interests.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California is among those who want much tighter regulation of tobacco, including possible restrictions by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on cigarettes as addictive products.
FDA commissioner David Kessler says that under current law, his agency could regulate cigarettes as a drug if manufacturers are using nicotine-laden tobacco to ``satisfy an addiction'' in their customers.
Dr. Kessler says evidence is mounting that nicotine is not only ``powerfully addictive,'' but cigarette firms also ``control the levels of nicotine that satisfy this addiction.''
With Kessler at the helm, Banzhaf of ASH predicts that the FDA could move toward regulating tobacco products as drugs within 10 months - a prediction the Tobacco Institute insists is unlikely.
Kessler concedes that moving quickly against tobacco ``could have dramatic effects on our society.'' In a letter to an antitobacco group, he noted that, because millions of Americans are addicted to nicotine, a ``weaning period'' might be necessary. He also worries that if nicotine cigarettes were removed from the market, a lucrative black market in such products could develop.
Meanwhile, another federal agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), is moving forward with proposed rules that would tightly regulate indoor air quality, including tobacco smoke.
Though it could be two years or more before OSHA rules take effect, tobacco officials note with alarm that OSHA regulates ``every employer, regardless of size, with the exception of self-employed individuals.''
Special facilities required
OSHA would require any employer who permits smoking to provide a specially enclosed room that is exhausted directly to the outside. Smoking would be allowed only in that area.
Representative Waxman, a leading tobacco critic, would put similar restrictions into law with HR 3434, his own bill, which was recently approved on a 14-to-11 vote in the House Health and Environment Subcommittee. HR 3434's prospects are problematic, however, because of strong opposition from tobacco states and because the hour is late in this Congress.
A growing number of congressmen would regulate cigarette advertising under tough rules similar to those for drugs.