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Lawmakers Wary of Tobacco Dispute

May 25, 1997|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — After decades of persuading lawmakers to leave them essentially alone, the nation's large tobacco companies are on the verge of beseeching Congress to set limits that industry executives once considered unthinkable.

But with public opinion shifting from indifference to hostility not only toward tobacco companies, but also toward politicians who cozy up to them, lawmakers are carefully weighing their options--and words--before rushing to defend Big Tobacco.

Congress may be dragged into the battle if the states and the companies eventually reach a settlement of state lawsuits seeking industry compensation for medical costs stemming from tobacco-related illnesses.

The industry is trying to craft a massive legal accord, which could include some kind of limit on its future liability. This kind of settlement would require federal legislation and almost certainly be highly controversial.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 30, 1997 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Tobacco talks--A story in Sunday's editions of The Times failed to note that comments made by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) regarding tobacco industry negotiations were made during an interview with Bloomberg News Service.

As a result, even legislators from tobacco states are shying away from jumping into the fray.

"I think we have enough on our plates right now," said first-term Rep. Bob Etheridge (R-N.C.). "That issue hasn't arrived at this door, and I don't think anyone is looking for any fights on it yet."

Added an aide to another member of Congress: "We'd like to stay away from [issues related to the settlement talks]. We don't have many facts and see no reason to comment on it right now."

Lawmakers seem to be treading gingerly around the combustible mixture of growing anti-tobacco sentiment and the cash-rich influence of the industry's lobbyists, said Bill Hogan of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based public policy think tank.

"Congress would prefer not to deal with these vexing issues because it puts the public's perception of [the tobacco industry as] a threat to its children and people's health against the money of a loyal campaign contributor," Hogan said. "This is the worst kind of political issue that could ever land on a congressman's desk."

As if to underscore the difficulty a potential tobacco settlement poses, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) apparently flip-flopped in his comments about the chances of Congress' approving a settlement.

Last Monday he told reporters that if a settlement could be reached that was supported by all sides in the tobacco talks, it would "have a lot of momentum" and most likely would have no problem winning approval from Congress.

"The key component is, do they have an agreement that everyone can sign off on," Lott said in an interview after a speech to the National Assn. of Realtors. "If they do, it should be relatively easy."

On Tuesday, asked if Congress would be willing to embrace a settlement on tobacco, Lott sounded a more cautious note.

"I really don't know," he said at his daily briefing with Capitol Hill reporters. "It's hard to say until you see what it is. There has been resistance to various components of it. It would depend on what [negotiators] come up with."

Without its hard-core congressional support of old, some contend, Big Tobacco is an industry on the run.

"We're going to see the collapse of the American tobacco industry," said Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah), an opponent of tobacco interests.

Few others would go that far, given the industry's long-standing clout in Washington--and its deep pockets. Over the last decade, the industry has given more than $25 million in political contributions, according to figures compiled by Common Cause, which tracks campaign donations.

"The industry is answering the attacks . . . by turning up their political contributions . . . in the hopes of keeping politicians addicted to their political money so they can enlist the aid of those politicians to protect tobacco," said Ann McBride, president of Common Cause.

According to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington campaign fund watchdog group, tobacco concerns were among the largest contributors to political campaigns last year, giving more than $7.3 million to Democrats and Republicans. Philip Morris, the nation's largest tobacco firm, led the way with more than $850,000 in donations.

The industry offers no apologies for its generosity.

"Nothing has changed," said a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, an industry lobbying group. "We've always had friends and we've always had enemies."

More and more, tobacco supporters are calling on their friends to shore up support in case it's needed in the near future. Representatives of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand, a Washington law firm involved in the settlement talks with state officials, have been meeting quietly with congressional leaders and selected members to keep them informed.

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