Dealing With Tobacco

Congress ought to cast the same wary eye on any settlement with the tobacco industry that it has on the latest United Nations deal with Saddam Hussein.

In both cases, the party on the other side of the table has a poor track record for telling the truth.

Not that tobacco industry officials aren't trying to change their image. Last week, they voluntarily released onto the Internet ( some self-incriminating documents revealing the way they have marketed tobacco with an eye toward children and delivering higher levels of the drug nicotine. The documents were going to become public as part of a court case being brought against them by the state of Minnesota. The companies recognized that they might as well get credit for releasing the documents themselves.

In that Minnesota courtroom this week, Philip Morris chairman Geoffrey Bible said he was "ashamed" and "horrified" at one of his company's documents showing it was concerned about the number of 15-to-19-year-old smokers dropping. How refreshing to see the stonewalling of years past give way to mea culpa.

But true confessions doesn't mean tobacco has conceded defeat. The companies threaten to walk away from the table in their potential deal with Congress if they are not protected from huge lawsuits popping up all across the country.

Now is the time for legislators to keep their eyes on the prize: a settlement that will substantially reduce tobacco use, especially among teens. Politicians wanting to impress voters this fall may try to extract so many additional concessions from the reeling tobacco giants, such as no relief at all from lawsuits, that a deal goes up in smoke. Tobacco companies may feel it's better to go back to fighting in the courts, even though they know that is a losing proposition in the long run.

A settlement that includes a broad ban on tobacco advertising (probably as some kind of voluntary agreement, since mandatory legislation might not pass a free-speech constitutional test) would be a great step forward. It is worth vigorously pursuing - perhaps even worth granting some cap on lawsuits against tobacco. One vital element will be to nail into place assurances that advertising luring youths into smoking will truly end.

The key is to nail in place assurances that ads luring youths into smoking will truly end.

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