Persist on Tobacco

Tobacco legislation seemed to go up in smoke this week. The Senate bill that promised to curb teen smoking and tightly regulate the tobacco industry failed, thanks to mounting opposition from some Republicans and an advertising offensive by cigarette makers. But the bill's objectives live on.

Antismoking lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will see to it that tobacco legislation resurfaces. Democrats in the Senate vow to bring the bill up again at every opportunity. The House GOP leadership, thinking of political insurance, perhaps, is mulling a narrower bill to discourage smoking by the young.

Those efforts must move forward, since some legislating in this area would be better than none. But the strengths of the now-shelved measure courageously championed by Senate Commerce chairman John McCain (R) of Arizona shouldn't drift from sight. A big hike in the tax on a pack of cigarettes, as proposed in the McCain bill, is a reasonable way to deter people, young and old, from smoking. It was not just another "tax and spend" scheme, as the bill's critics intoned.

Most of the spending involved was originally aimed at education and advertising to reduce youthful smoking, and at health costs related to tobacco. That focus got blurred by a cloud of amendments, but there was a possibility of reclarification had the bill passed and moved on to conference.

The politics of all this could reach gale force by fall. Democrats want to pillory Republicans who helped kill the bill. But more important is the commitment to keep at the legislative task. One bill is down, for now. But events over the past year make one thing clear: The era of tobacco's stranglehold on American politics is gone forever. There'll be other bills.

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