Tobacco's Toll Road

Light a small victory torch for US citizens, and thank the federal government over the course of two administrations for its undaunted pursuit of the tobacco industry for the past six years. Here's why:

Well ahead of a September trial that pits the US government against the tobacco companies, a federal judge has sided with Bush administration officials over various aspects of a $280 billion racketeering lawsuit originally filed by the Clinton administration in 1999. The suit charges that the tobacco companies deliberately misled people about smoking risks, and that they conspired to do so going back to the 1950s.

Last week, the judge decided not to exclude charges the tobacco companies tinkered with nicotine levels in efforts to deceive the public. The government's suit charges that "light" and "ultralight" cigarettes were marketed in ways that led smokers to think they were acceptable alternatives to quitting.

Perhaps more significant, the judge also threw out a tobacco company argument that its $246 billion settlement reached with states in 1998 invalidated the government's current charges.

While all those billions already have put an obvious crimp in Big Tobacco's leaf, these recent decisions in the case should bode well for a positive final court outcome that better protects consumers. After all, the same judge will be presiding.

But wait a minute - while the government marches steadily forward against the tobacco companies, members of Congress haven't been nearly so diligent in taking them on.

A bill in the House would rightly have given the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more regulatory authority over tobacco. And it would have gotten rid of a long-outdated quota system that allowed tobacco farmers to boost prices of their crop. But it was morphed into a larger corporate tax bill that does little or nothing of either.

In fact, there are no FDA provisions in the bill the House finally passed last week. The buyout money goes to fewer than 10 percent of the farmers affected, and it would cost $10 billion in public money to boot. (Originally, the tobacco companies were supposed to pick up the tab.)

And that's not all: Some of the tobacco-state lawmakers in Congress also stand to benefit personally from the buyout package the House ultimately put together.

Too bad the efforts to rein in Big Tobacco occurring at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue aren't having much effect at the other end.

The House and Senate are expected to merge this with other bills containing various tobacco-related decisions in September. Let's hope their work restores FDA regulatory authority, and makes the tobacco companies foot the bill for the farmer's buyout, even as the administration works to toughen restrictions on the manufacture, marketing, and sale of cigarettes.

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