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Compromise on Tobacco Hinted

Regulation: White House says it would let cigarette makers escape FDA oversight if they accept tough rules to curb teen smoking.


WYANDOTTE, Mich. — Four days after President Clinton announced a historic crackdown on the nation's tobacco industry, the White House said Tuesday that it is willing to allow cigarette makers to escape regulation by the Food and Drug Administration if they adhere to other tough measures proposed by the president to curb teenage smoking.

Speaking to reporters during a stop on Clinton's whistle-stop train tour through the Midwest, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry also hinted, but would not confirm outright, that industry and government officials already have taken the first tender steps toward a compromise.

"You get the feeling that there are talks going on," McCurry said. However, he cautioned: "A lot of people are chattering in a lot of places, but whether that adds up to anything remains to be seen."

Clinton has long maintained that if the tobacco industry makes the right offer he would be willing to strike a deal with cigarette manufacturers. Pressing forward with his plan for the FDA to regulate nicotine as a drug is an approach that is certain to be caught up in a lengthy lawsuit. One easy way out, the president has said, would be for Congress to pass a law that would put in place some of the same controls he has ordered to be imposed.

On Tuesday, McCurry reiterated that stance. His remarks came on the heels of similar comments by White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta in an interview with CBS News.

"The fundamental requirement is getting the industry to meet these requirements so that kids will not be attracted to smoking," Panetta said. "And frankly, anything that can avoid the long-term litigation that's involved here with these regulations would be helpful."

While the statements from Panetta and McCurry do not depart from previous administration policy, they are nonetheless surprising, coming after Clinton's forceful attack on the nation's powerful tobacco industry last week.

The president announced the tobacco crackdown during a poignant ceremony Friday in the White House Rose Garden. Flanked by more than a dozen teenagers in fire-engine red T-shirts bearing anti-smoking slogans--and with the widow of a former tobacco industry lobbyist at his side--Clinton declared nicotine an addictive drug and gave the FDA broad jurisdiction to regulate cigarettes.

The president then announced that the FDA would implement a series of strict rules designed to reduce underage smoking by half over the next seven years. The rules include requiring that anyone younger than 27 show proof of age before buying cigarettes; banning most vending machine sales; banning tobacco company sponsorship of sporting events; eliminating cigarette logos on baseball caps, T-shirts and other merchandise; and, in the most controversial provision of all, restricting nearly all tobacco advertising, including billboards, to black-and-white text.

The tobacco industry is bitterly opposed to the plan, and no feature worries cigarette manufacturers more than the prospect that they might be regulated by the FDA.

Stolberg reported from Washington and Richter from Wyandotte.

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