Progress Against Tobacco

On the tobacco front, this week marks a first and a second, and both are significant. For the first time, the 10th International Conference on Smoking and Health is being held in a developing country - China. For the second time, a state - Florida - has settled a multibillion-dollar lawsuit aimed at punishing cigarette companies and recovering Medicaid tax money spent on smokers.

Hurdles remain. But both events are sure signs of progress in the effort to rein in the powerful tobacco industry and to keep cigarettes out of the mouths of young people.

The hurdle, in the first instance, is that tobacco companies are stepping up marketing in developing countries such as China, where smoking rates have soared. With 70 million new smokers in China since 1987, the industry sees it as a gold mine that could help pay for the proposed $368.5 billion settlement the tobacco industry reached with the attorneys general of 40 American states.

But China seems to be on the offensive, having launched a campaign aimed at getting its 320 million smokers to quit. It should find some much needed support from the 70 other countries attending the Beijing gathering. Together they may decide, as the World Health Organization wisely is urging, to adopt rules to restrict the international tobacco trade. As we've said before, tobacco companies should not be allowed to first admit, as part of a US settlement, that targeting children is wrong, and then turn around and lure young people elsewhere in the world.

Which brings us to another hurdle: completing the proposed settlement between the state attorneys general and the tobacco giants. Antismoking forces worry that if other states follow in Florida's (and Mississippi's) footsteps, then momentum could falter in Congress for that far-reaching agreement. They say Congress might decide states are doing fine on their own and that federal lawmakers, therefore, don't need to move quickly.

But they do need to act. The proposed "global settlement" includes tougher advertising rules than those in the Florida deal, for example. It also forces tobacco companies to make $368.5 billion in payments over 25 years. That makes it likely those companies will raise the price of cigarettes, which in turn could reduce the number of children and teenagers buying them.

We're hopeful that the states' settlements won't derail the proposed wider agreement but rather prod Congress to move it forward, making necessary adjustments. We hope, too, that the global settlement will live up to its name. Its benefits should extend not only to the 40 states involved in lawsuits, but also to China and beyond.

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