Time was - just a few years of time actually - when the tobacco industry was flicking away lawsuits like ashes at the end of a cigarette ... when tobacco could scare the ABC and CBS networks into killing or holding up anti-cigarette documentaries ... when $30 million a year in lobbying money assured a respectful hearing in the halls of Congress. But not anymore.
No longer can tobacco grudgingly put on a warning label and thumb its nose at the surgeon general. Once rated among the big-time successful lobbying interests, along with the gun lobby, the senior-citizen's lobby and the pro-Israel lobby, tobacco has lost a lot of its clout. That is because of something that rarely happens in America. Unlike special interests that operate in the shadows, smoking has become a high-profile issue that has engaged the attention and the anger of the American public.
This means that legislators who are beneficiaries of tobacco money must consider what damage they will suffer at the polls if they are perceived as being in tobacco's pocket. When the industry pulled out of negotiations with Congress for approval of a multibillion dollar settlement, it was assumed that tobacco, as in the past, had some diabolically clever new strategy.
Maybe not. Maybe tobacco is acting out of desperation, fearing that it is heading into a generation of class-action suits, regulation, and eventual bankruptcy. Some of the industry's strategy is plain to see: trying to convince the taxpayer that this is a tax issue, not a health issue, trying to enlist in its cause allies like the food industry, the restaurant industry, and the liquor industry.
Food distributors lobbyist John Block, secretary of agriculture in the Reagan administration, was quoted in The Washington Post Monday as saying, "If you can attack tobacco with these horrendous taxes, why not do the same to liquor? How about beer? Then, maybe, go after beef because it's kind of fatty?" The extent of hyperbole being used indicates the extent of nervousness on the pro-tobacco side.
The fight is far from over. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who a week earlier sounded as though he was joining the antitobacco crusade, has flipped over to saying that Sen. John McCain's bill is "very liberal, big government, big bureaucracy." In raising the ante on taxes and capping the liability to lawsuits, Mr. McCain may have overreached and his bill may not pass in its original form. But the tobacco industry is acting as though it is in dire danger that something will pass and that massive lobbying no longer makes it invulnerable.
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.