The deal reached between the states and the tobacco companies is anticlimactic. It will inevitably be compared to the much tougher tobacco legislation that failed in Congress last spring after the industry lobbied heavily for its defeat.
Some elements of that earlier package are glaringly absent. The industry will not face regulation of its products by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It will not have to pay added fines if youth smoking doesn't decrease. And it will dig less than half as deeply into its pockets to offset the public cost of treating illness linked to smoking - $206 billion over the next 25 years instead of $516 billion.
For all its shortcomings, however, this new agreement is a step worth taking. The tobacco companies are being forced to shoulder a significant share of the burden their products have placed on society. In return, they get out from under a major legal threat - states' lawsuits to recover tobacco-related Medicaid payments. But the companies still face individual and class-action suits.
Moreover, they can no longer advertise cigarettes on billboards, buses, and taxis. Cartoon ads aimed at youth, such as the infamous Joe Camel character, are banned. Antismoking campaigns and research will be funded.
This deal may cool the zeal of state attorneys general to pursue tobacco litigation. But it should mark a beginning, not an end. Efforts to rid the country - and particularly its youth - of tobacco addiction must push ahead. President Clinton should follow through next year on pledges to pursue FDA oversight of nicotine-laden products. Citizens should prod Congress to pass such legislation.
Tobacco tax hikes must be pursued at the federal and state levels, too. In order to discourage consumption, the price of cigarettes needs to be forced much higher than the 35-cent per pack increase probable under the states' deal. Though such hikes face tough political opposition, public support may be greater than many politicians realize. The apparent success of Proposition 10 in California, which will add 50 cents to the price of a pack of cigarettes, attests to that.
Continued pressure on all fronts can break the hold of tobacco on individual lives, and on political decisionmaking.