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Philadelphia Inquirer Opposes Tobacco Proposal

Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial 11/18/98


Behind-the-scenes tobacco settlement falls short. Get Congress and the President back into the act.

You'd be foolish to buy a used car the dealer wouldn't let you test drive or take to your mechanic for a look.

By the same logic, 46 states should resist pressure to accept a complex tobacco settlement unveiled just this week by eight state attorneys general, who want those states to sign on by Friday.

Speculation is that states representing about 75 percent of the Medicaid population would have to say yes to make the deal worthwhile to tobacco companies.

Four states already have settled suits seeking damages for their tobacco-related health spending for nearly $40 billion, money available then to be spent on smoking prevention and health care in general.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Michael Fisher is one of the eight primary players in this third major attempt at a national tobacco settlement. Nevertheless, Gov. Ridge ought to advise him to hold off on signing the deal.

Though there's been scant time to analyze its full impact, the tentative 146-page agreement appears to fall short on a number of counts.

The settlement amount, $206 billion, works out to much less per capita than the amount negotiated by Minnesota Attorney General Hubert "Skip" Humphrey in a solo deal. Minnesota's 4.6 million residents got $6.1 billion over 25 years.

Under this deal, Pennsylvania would get $11.2 billion for its 12 million residents. New Jersey, where the attorney general is leaning toward this settlement, would get $7.5 billion for 8 million residents.

Mr. Fisher lamely quotes a Philip Morris lawyer as warning that the industry will never settle for Minnesota money again, because the industry "spent $50 million changing the attitudes of the country."

Well, attitudes come and go. And Gov. Ridge might well want to gamble on the Philadelphia jury that could, absent a settlement, someday hear Pennsylvania's pending case against Big Tobacco.

Experts calculate it would take a $427 billion national deal to equal the Minnesota settlement.

Any deal like this, giving the tobacco industry limited immunity against state lawsuits over health-cost damages, cries out for input by public-health representatives. Yet none were at the negotiating table.

So it is no wonder that public-health advocates, who have until Friday to register their complaints to their respective states, feel that this proposal is being railroaded.

John Garrison, head of the American Lung Association, said the deal "does too little to protect public health and too much to protect tobacco industry profits."

Many critics rightly point out that, unlike the tobacco deal that Congress rejected last summer, this one offers no penalties should youth smoking increase, no agreement on Food and Drug Administration oversight, and no major increase in the cost of a pack of cigarettes -- the primary tool for decreasing smoking.

"This is what happens when you have failure of federal leadership," noted David Kessler, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner. "There is very little here for public health. There are more tobacco industry loopholes than you can imagine. States as a group should not take this deal. States willing to stand up and fight should do that.

"But the good thing is that this deal sets the stage, and makes it imperative for Congress to act."


Credit the attorneys general with at least trying to fill the vacuum left by last summer's congressional cowardice -- and lack of presidential leadership. Caving under that tobacco ad blitz, Congress killed a $516 billion bill that could have attacked tobacco addiction and should have done much to address the needs of poor children.

The new Congress will have a new chance -- but this settlement might undermine it, since it makes new federal cigarette taxes a zero sum game. As federal taxes increase, the states' settlement would decline.

Failing action by Congress, President Clinton still has the option of having the Justice Department file suit against the industry.

It's too soon to let Big Tobacco off the hook the way this deal does.