Don't Delay on Tobacco

No one (well, almost no one) ever said the proposed $368.5 billion settlement reached in June by state attorneys generals and the tobacco giants was perfect.

Some people criticized the deal because it didn't give the Food and Drug Administration full regulatory power over tobacco; others questioned the adequacy of the penalties to be paid by the industry if youth smoking rates don't fall as projected. We were concerned that the so-called global settlement would leave cigarette makers free to act as they wish in other countries.

President Clinton shared at least some of these concerns. On Wednesday he said he would not endorse the proposed settlement in its present form and then, in broad terms, outlined his own goals. Those include an increase in the price of cigarettes, by as much as $1.50 a pack over 10 years, and legislation that would stipulate targets to cut teen smoking by 30 percent in five years, 50 percent in seven, and 60 percent in 10. Penalties for missing those targets shouldn't be capped or be tax-deductible as a business expense, the president said. Clinton also would ensure that the FDA is able to regulate nicotine as an addictive drug.

All worthy goals, to be sure. But Congress isn't likely to enact a comprehensive tobacco control program for at least a year and probably longer. And that's too bad. Because while the June proposal wasn't perfect, it did contain much that was useful, including marketing restrictions, the largest public-education campaign in history, and restrictions on youth access to cigarettes and other tobacco products. That 3,000 young people in the United States start smoking every day only underscores the need for a global settlement - soon.

The state attorneys general, at the very least, opened up a precedent-setting debate about smoking and cigarette makers' culpability - a debate that should continue to be widely heard. On Wednesday President Clinton said his administration wasn't rejecting what had been accomplished but rather was building on it. We'll see. The tobacco industry said raising its payments even further "would be unacceptable" and it wouldn't budge. We'll see. Much will depend on what the president, Congress, and the tobacco industry decide to do next, and how fast they do it. What's certain is there's too much at stake to delay for long or do nothing at all.

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