Tobacco Talks II

The work of settling accounts with Big Tobacco has shifted back to the states in the wake of US Senate's failure to act. It's now the states' duty to negotiate agreements that address the core problem of teen smoking.

While four states (Florida, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Texas) have already settled with the tobacco companies, 37 have lawsuits still pending. And every state has a stake in the outcome.

Recent talks between company lawyers and state attorneys general yielded some hope for an overall agreement. Both sides, however, said major differences remained. Those differences probably involve money, but the crucial objective, for the states, has to be strict curbs on the industry's ability to promote its product to the young.

Settlements in Florida and Minnesota point the way. Florida got $11.3 billion from the tobacco industry, part of which is funding a program to enlist teenagers themselves in the battle against smoking. In widely aired TV messages, kids declare their determination not to be taken in by portrayals of smoking as "cool" in industry ads or in movies.

Minnesota's settlement included provisions under which tobacco companies will remove their ads from billboards, finance antismoking campaigns, and stop misrepresenting the hazards posed by their products.

Other states are likely to follow the same route. In total, that could mean constraints on tobacco marketing to youngsters nearly as comprehensive as what would have been imposed had national legislation passed.

The states, however, can't include universal regulation of nicotine as an addictive drug. Nor can they deliver a big, national hike in the cigarette tax. Both steps would have been useful. Scaled-back federal legislation may surface in the House. Speaker Gingrich, ear cocked to Democratic charges that Republicans are soft on tobacco, has promised to revisit the issue after Congress's August break.

By then, states now negotiating with the tobacco industry should be near a deal. The deadline, effectively, is Sept. 14, when Washington state's lawsuit against cigarette makers goes to trial. The companies want to settle out of court. Many of the state attorneys general would love to have a credible tobacco settlement wrapped up before November's election.

But those motives, while active, are secondary. Most important is the goal of keeping future generations from an addiction that has burdened individual lives and society.

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