Tobacco's Road

The so-called "global" agreement reached between state attorneys general and the tobacco industry awaits congressional action. The companies, hoping for the liability protection it offers, urgently want the pact ratified. So does the Clinton administration, though with added provisions, including a payout to the government considerably higher than the $368.5 billion over 25 years now specified.

Those billions, after all, are counted on to pay for administration initiatives - such as expanded child care, medical research, and more teachers for US public schools.

The tobacco agreement has always been a mixed blessing. It rightly holds the industry accountable for the harm its products have caused individuals and society. But it also limits accountability by ruling out future class-action lawsuits and punitive damage claims. Antitobacco activists, including many legislators, have resisted any legal protection for tobacco firms. Their position is bolstered by fresh information about industry deception in marketing cigarettes, especially to young people.

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A trial under way in Minnesota is likely to throw intense light on how companies withheld knowledge of cigarettes' destructive and addictive effects in the rush to lure new customers. This trial is the first among 40 similar state lawsuits to move forward without an out-of-court settlement. The State of Minnesota and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota are suing to collect nearly $2 billion in health-care expenses for smoking-related illnesses.

Tobacco company CEOs themselves, in congressional testimony, acknowledged findings about addictiveness, health effects, and marketing to youth.

Thus the process in Congress is getting infusions of damning data about the tobacco industry's past strategies. Many lawmakers who have received hefty campaign contributions from R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, and others, will be increasingly leery of portrayal as pawns of an industry whose products and tactics have harmed the public. And antitobacco forces will gain confidence they can win a deal even more costly to the companies.

What should emerge is an agreement that holds the industry strictly accountable and assures that the billions owed can't be sidestepped by stratagems to restrict corporate liability to tobacco units that may not have the funds. Already strong provisions to cut youthful smoking should, if anything, be strengthened. And while they're at it, lawmakers ought to make it clear that restrictions on marketing to youth should truly apply globally.

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