Tobacco Smoke Screens

Public interest in even the most important subjects may wander if confusions - call them smoke screens - muddle the scene.

That's currently the case with efforts to stuff the malign tobacco genie back into containment.

Citizens get a clear-cut event: The state of Minnesota wrests a $6.6 billion settlement from big tobacco with long-lasting punitive effects. Recruiting of new addicts is handcuffed. Past chicanery will be put on display for all to see - and can be used by other states in court.

But then back to smoky Washington. The Senate is moving; the House is dragging. But there's a muddle in the Senate over how tough to be. How big a penalty is being aimed at tobacco firms? Could it bankrupt them? Will high cigarette taxes hurt the poor? Will heavy sanctions create a massive black market?

Then there's the battle between congressional Republicans and President Clinton. GOP leaders generally want to use tobacco tax revenues to shore up Medicare, reimbursing it for tobacco health-care costs, and to fund youth smoking-prevention programs. The White House wants the latter. But it also wants the hundreds of billions to fund unrelated new programs.

Congress should stick to some basic goals:

Don't worry about what a settlement will do to big tobacco. The aim should be eventually to put it out of the smokes and chew business. Let RJR just sell Oreos.

Don't be sidetracked by pointless bickering over whether to total costs in inflated or uninflated dollars.

Do aim to prevent the habit in the young and to help older users break the habit. That means a carrot of shrewd but honest education programs, coupled with a stick of high taxes that can deter teens and many adult users. Break-the-habit programs should emphasize the genuine satisfaction of being freed from the supposed iron grip of addiction, not just much-publicized health fears.

Don't divert settlement money to fund non-related programs. After all, reducing smoking should reduce tobacco tax revenues. And that means any new programs would eventually demand other tax sources - or create new deficits. That's not the way to go.

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