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Cudgel or compromise on tobacco?

June 19 - Chances for enactment of a narrowly focused anti-tobacco bill dimmed, as, for the third day in a row, President Bill Clinton denounced Senate Republicans.
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Chances for enactment of a narrowly focused anti-tobacco bill dimmed Friday, as, for the third day in a row, President Bill Clinton denounced the 40 Senate Republicans and two Democrats who voted Wednesday to shelve the sweeping anti-tobacco bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “It was a vote against our children and for the tobacco lobby. It’s as simple at that,” declared Clinton at a White House meeting with reporters.

It appears that Clinton has chosen to use the tobacco issue as a cudgel to inflict damage on GOP candidates in this fall’s elections and that chances for a compromise are slim.

When a reporter asked Clinton whether he opposed a “slimmed-down” anti-smoking bill of the kind sketched out Thursday by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the president replied, “absolutely.”

He added, “I don’t see why we should participate in a charade.”

Gingrich said Thursday, “I hope the president will sign a focused, targeted teen smoking bill. I can’t imagine why he would want to veto [such a bill].”

The narrow measure previewed by GOP leaders on Thursday would:

Offer financial incentives to states that take steps to discourage smoking by teen-agers.

Provide funds for an advertising campaign intended to deter teen smoking.

Give the Food and Drug Administration authority over the manufacture of cigarettes.

But the emerging House bill is not expected to seek higher cigarette prices — a centerpiece of the McCain bill and a key demand of public health groups that advocated its passage.

The McCain measure, which the Senate in effect killed Wednesday, would have raised cigarette prices by $1.10 a pack and would have forced companies to pay huge penalties if the rate of teen-age smoking did not decline.

Over the next 25 years, the bill would have forced the cigarette manufacturers to pay the federal government penalties of between $756 billion and $869 billion. Those costs would have been passed on to the nation’s 50 million smokers in the form of higher cigarette prices.

Opponents of the McCain bill argued that it didn’t target teen-age smokers but would have hit all smokers with a massive tax increase. People age 18 and older constitute more than 90 percent of smokers in the United States.


Sounding a theme that he and other Democrats may well use in this fall’s campaign, Clinton declared: “The Republican majority may want the tobacco companies to run the Congress on this issue. I don’t.”

Clinton did not mention that two Democratic senators, Charles Robb of Virginia and Wendell Ford of Kentucky, voted to shelve the McCain bill.

Apparently still angry over Wednesday’s Senate vote, the president used an indignant tone to denounce the senators who voted against the motion to shut off debate, in effect killing the McCain bill.

He said, “Every senator who voted to kill this bill not only voted against the provisions which will help to prevent teen smoking, which will help to put more research into cancer research and to other public health problems and help to promote smoking cessation programs [but they also] voted against new measures to crack down on drugs. They voted against life-saving research. They also voted not to implement a program that can save a million lives a year.”

Citing a tax measure that the White House originally opposed but was added to the McCain bill as a “sweetener,” the president said the senators “also voted against fixing the marriage penalty and giving a tax break for working families with incomes under $50,000.”

Clinton indicated there was still hope for some legislation but hinted that he would only sign “a bill that will increase the price of cigarettes enough to deter smoking [and] that will have strong advertising restrictions.”


In its vote Wednesday afternoon, the Senate decided not to end its debate on the McCain anti-tobacco bill.

Voting to stop debate and to bring McCain’s measure to a vote were 43 Democrats and 14 Republicans. Voting “no” were Democrats Robb and Ford, as well as 40 Republicans.

Under Senate rules, 60 votes are required to shut off debate. Thus McCain and his allies fell three votes short.

McCain blamed cigarette makers, who waged a $40 million advertising campaign against the bill.

But there was evidence of sentiment against the McCain bill even before the tobacco industry launched its ad campaign.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll published in April revealed that 70 percent of Americans surveyed think that the supporters of the McCain bill are mainly interested in “getting additional tax revenue for the federal government,” while only 20 percent thought the bill’s intent was “cutting teen smoking by raising cigarette prices.”

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, spoke for most Republicans when he said before Wednesday’s cloture vote, “We were taxing blue-collar Americans. That is the first thing that Americans came to understand as we debated this bill for a month.”

He cited studies showing that 59 percent of the new taxes imposed by the McCain bill would be paid by Americans who make less than $30,000 a year.


The McCain bill would have had far-reaching effects on smokers, farmers amd retail store owners.

The United States is the second-largest tobacco producer in the world (after China). In 1996, tobacco was grown on more than 124,000 American farms, producing a crop valued at $2.9 billion, according to a study by the Congressional Budget Office published in April.

The tobacco industry supports more than 600,000 jobs for people who produce and deliver tobacco products. Convenience stores and gas stations sold about $12.7 billion in tobacco products in 1992, with vending machines adding $2 billion in sales, according to the CBO analysis.

The CBO report noted that “cigarette smoking increases the mortality and morbidity of smokers, and the treatment of smoking-related illnesses is costly. Much of that cost is financed by Medicare and Medicaid,” —or in other words by taxpayers.

The CBO added that if anti-smoking measures resulted in fewer Americans smoking, then “tobacco-related health care costs in the long run could drop significantly. However, reduced cigarette consumption might also increase [Medicare and Medicaid] costs somewhat in the long run because people might live longer and use additional health care services during those years.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.