If the Bush administration is indeed trying to back out of its lawsuit against the tobacco industry, it owes the public a clear and honest explanation.
The suit was initiated in 1999 by the Clinton administration. It came in the wake of state lawsuits settled in 1998, in which the major tobacco companies agreed to pay states $246 billion over 25 years in compensation for smoking-related health costs.
The national government had its own claims, too, arising from Medicare and veterans' healthcare programs. So it sued, making the same case the states had made about deceptive advertising and dishonesty about the addictive nature of tobacco. The Bush administration, apparently, now has doubts about the strength of the federal suit. It's looking into settling the case out of court.
The federal case was certainly weakened last fall, when a US district court judge threw out some parts of it related to the government's effort to recover healthcare costs. But the judge allowed two counts that charge the tobacco firms engaged in racketeering through deceptive practices.
Some close observers of the case, including antismoking activists and former Justice Department lawyers involved in the litigation, think the government still has a strong case.
The move toward a settlement raises prickly questions for the Bush administration. Is it simply following through on doubts that both the president and Attorney General John Ashcroft had previously expressed about the litigation - despite assurances from both that they wouldn't abandon the suit? Is the sparse funding given the tobacco litigation in the current Justice Department budget evidence that there was never any intention of pursuing the case?
And, not least, are they doing a favor for a major donor to the Republican Party? (Eight-three percent of tobacco industry contributions went to Republican candidates in last November's election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.)
Those questions could be put to rest if Mr. Ashcroft and team seek a settlement that places needed restraints on an industry that's only too eager to begin marketing new, "safer" cigarettes.
Closer oversight of the industry by the Food and Drug Administration would be useful. Most important, the American taxpayer, who has footed much of the bill for tobacco addiction over the decades, should be assured that the government is not backing out of this arena.
With one in three US high school students still trying smoking, the battle against tobacco - in families, schools, and courts - is far from over.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor