TOPICS > Health

Background: Smoke Strategies

September 17, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner begins our coverage of the tobacco story.

MARGARET WARNER: Today President Clinton weighed in on the sweeping nationwide tobacco accord first announced several months ago.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: We have moved from confrontation and denial and inertia to the brink of action on behalf of our children. And that is all to the good. Today, I want to challenge Congress to build on this historic opportunity by passing sweeping tobacco legislation that has one goal in mind: the dramatic reduction of teen smoking.

MARGARET WARNER: Today’s presidential statement follows a stunning development last June when a group of state attorneys general announced what they called a landmark settlement with the tobacco industry.

MICHAEL MOORE, Mississippi Attorney General: (June) We are here today to announce what we think is we know, we believe is the most historic public health achievement in history.

MARGARET WARNER: The June settlement, which requires approval by Congress and the President, would do the following: Force the cigarette makers to pay $368 billion over 25 years for anti-smoking campaigns and for health costs related to tobacco smoking; allow the FDA to regulate nicotine as a drug, but not eliminate it for 12 years; restrict advertising; and force the industry to reduce youth smoking. In return, the industry would receive immunity from future class-action lawsuits and from punitive damages for past wrongdoing. The industry’s legal liability would be capped at $5 billion per year. Criticism came almost immediately from public health advocates, including former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and former federal drug administration chief David Kessler.

DR. DAVID KESSLER, Former FDA Commissioner: The language contained in the proposed settlement that was announced on Friday is absolutely unacceptable.

MARGARET WARNER: There was also criticism from some members of Congress.

SEN. FRANK LAUTENBERG, (D) New Jersey: Will they cooperate in terms of making the product less addictive? Thus far they haven’t done it. I mean, these are not good guys coming to the table. They’ve been dragged there, and the fact is that that winds up with a lot of suspicion about what’s in there.

MARGARET WARNER: And early in the summer President Clinton expressed some preliminary reservations that the proposed settlement might hobble the FDA’s authority to regulate tobacco. While this public debate was going on, the tobacco companies reached multi-million dollar out-of-court agreements with Florida and Mississippi to settle their lawsuits over the costs of treating smoking-related illnesses. And in July, Congress hit the tobacco companies with a 39 cents a pack cigarette tax hike, to produce $50 billion over five years. But the same provision also allowed the industry to apply the $50 billion as a credit towards the more than $300 billion they’d agreed to pay under their settlement with the attorneys general. Some Senators cried “foul.”

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, (D) Illinois: (September 9) This amendment, to paraphrase an old literary quote, shines and stinks like rotten mackerel by moonlight. We are now bringing it to the attention of our colleagues to let them know that this rotten mackerel should be excised from the federal law.

MARGARET WARNER: Last week, the Senate decisively overturned the controversial tax credit and the House did the same today. The settlement with the attorneys general can’t take effect without legislation, but in recent weeks, Republican leaders have said they weren’t likely to review the tobacco deal this year.

Today, the President was firm about the additional elements he wants any legislation to include. They are: tougher penalties and incentives to reduce teen smoking, including a sharp increase in the price of cigarettes of up to $1.50 a pack; full authority for the FDA to regulate tobacco products; changes in tobacco industry marketing practices and public disclosure of industry documents; more money for smoking cessation and health research programs; and protection for the financial well-being of tobacco farmers and their communities.

The President did not submit proposed legislation, however, and many specifics are being left to the bill writers. Despite these tougher requirements, the President said he’s still hopeful that the settlement process initiated by the attorneys general can bear fruit.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: We’re building on this progress. And that’s the way we have to look at this. We are trying to do the best thing for the country in a way that is consistent with the agreement they made. We’re building on the agreement; we’re not tearing it down. We’re building on it, and I think we can get legislation that will reflect it.