Tobacco Battles, Rejoined

With the president's blessing, the US Justice Department is opening its own front in the litigation war against tobacco. Declaring the states had been right to go after cigarette companies for money spent to treat illnesses associated with smoking, Mr. Clinton sounded the "Charge!" during his State of the Union address.

Now that the initial dust has cleared, a few observations:

First, the companies, though settling with the states for $206 billion over 25 years, got off a lot easier last year than they would have if the congressional tobacco-settlement bill had passed. They can pay more, and should. And the Justice Department should strive to work into any settlement some key non-monetary elements, notably federal regulation of nicotine as a dangerous drug.

Second, the suit should focus on federal health expenditures not already covered by the states' suit. Their issue was Medicaid costs - some of which are paid by Washington. The feds are poised, therefore, to seek a share of that settlement. But through the Veterans' Administration, Medicare, and other programs, the federal government has a separate set of claims. It also has laws that allow for recovery of expenses resulting from the negligence of third parties.

Third, this suit should not turn into a feeding frenzy by private trial lawyers. Many attorneys long involved in tobacco litigation were hired by states to help pursue their lawsuits. The payoffs were huge. But the Justice Department, we assume, will do its own legal work - not causing taxpayers, who've had to foot the bills for government medical programs, to lose billions in compensation to lawyer contingency fees.

Most important, this move by the administration, together with its pledge to seek a large increase in the federal tax on cigarettes, continues a needed battle. But the legal and tax thrust must be joined to extensive educational efforts to cut youth smoking. Then the slavery to tobacco addiction will decline even more over the long run.

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