Momentum on Tobacco Deal

Senate moves ahead on bills, but fights over advertising, immunity may slow its progress.

Congress is cranking into gear to tackle one of its most complex issues ever: wide-ranging tobacco legislation that would look at everything from liability lawsuits to the marketing of Joe Camel.

The effort, with fewer than 70 working days left on Capitol Hill, could change the tobacco industry and result in billions of dollars in new taxes for smokers.

Even as the Senate starts marking up some tobacco legislation this week, the White House is raising the ante. On Saturday, in his weekly radio address, President Clinton challenged Congress to move quickly.

"Will this Congress be remembered for putting politics aside and protecting our children from tobacco - or for letting the public-health opportunity of a lifetime pass us by?" Mr. Clinton asked. The president planned to keep the pressure on this week with a series of speeches.

Mr. Clinton's jawboning follows unsuccessful efforts by the White House and congressional negotiators to agree last week on legislation that would raise the price of cigarettes by $1.50 a pack and penalize tobacco firms for past marketing efforts that appear to have targeted children.

Instead, the Senate will begin a more piecemeal approach. This week, Vermont Sen. James Jeffords (R) hopes to add language to a proposed bill in an effort to stop kids from smoking and to allow the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate cigarettes and nicotine.

Senator Jeffords's effort may become part of a comprehensive bill that would originate in the Senate Commerce Committee, chaired by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona. Senator McCain has already introduced legislation that is similar to an agreement carved out last summer between states' attorneys general and the tobacco industry. That pact would cost the companies $365 billion over 25 years.

Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota has already unveiled a wide-ranging bill that would cost the industry about $500 billion over 25 years. So far, it has 30 co-sponsors. This week, too, Sens. John Chaffe (R) of Rhode Island, Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, and Bob Graham (D) of Florida will introduce legislation to raise the price of cigarettes by $1.50 a pack over the next two years.

"Some of the major forces are wheeling and dealing to make [a tobacco bill] happen," says Cliff Douglas of Tobacco Control Law and Policy Consulting, based in Ann Arbor, Mich. "The momentum given by the White House reflects the narrow window of opportunity to push something through Congress this year."

But potential stumbling blocks to final legislation are many.

Immunity. Last summer's agreement by attorneys general in 40 states gave the tobacco industry broad immunity from litigation for past misdeeds, in return for health-related concessions. "The tobacco industry wants some stability, some certainty," says Richard McGowan, a professor at Boston College and author of a book on the industry.

But Congress is not likely to agree to such wide protection.

"I wouldn't consider it," says Senator Conrad. "We shouldn't provide this industry with special protection that no other industry has."

Instead, some Hill lawmakers have discussed capping annual payments the industry would make. "I imagine the industry would settle for 25 to 30 percent of annual earnings," says Mr. McGowan. But Conrad says a figure that low is "farcical."

Even the antitobacco groups are split on the issue of capping legal liability.

"The cap has to be really high to consider it a deterrent, so they don't continue to engage in their behavior," says Paul Billings, deputy director of government relations for the American Lung Association, which opposed last summer's pact.

But other groups, such as the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, are willing to negotiate on immunity if the tobacco legislation tackles public-health issues.

* FDA authority. Jeffords's legislation would allow the FDA to require tobacco companies to develop safer products for people who want to smoke despite the warnings. Health groups, however, have recently been critical of Jeffords's approach.

Both Jeffords and Conrad would penalize the industry if smoking among youths does not drop significantly. If it didn't, Jeffords would force tobacco companies to pay an additional $500 million per year, while Conrad would add another 50 cents to the price of a pack.

* Advertising and marketing. In the original agreement last summer, the tobacco companies agreed to end most tobacco advertising that depicted human figures. New ads would be black and white "tombstone" ads that give just the name of the brand. The White House has cautioned that mandating such restrictions could result in court challenges.

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