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Legislators Toughen Stance With Tobacco Firms

Congress: Bills targeting underage smoking, secondhand exposure seek to influence settlement talks.

June 04, 1997|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

In a move clearly designed to shape the outcome of ongoing tobacco negotiations, a group of anti-tobacco legislators on Tuesday introduced legislation aimed at reducing both underage smoking and the risk of disease from secondhand smoke.

"The No Tobacco for Kids Act" would require tobacco companies to reduce teenage smoking by 90% within six years or face stiff monetary penalties.

Companies not meeting that requirement would pay a noncompliance fee of $1 per pack or more on all their sales. The first billion dollars in fees collected under the law would go into a fund for enforcement and public education to discourage children from using tobacco products. Any additional fees would be used for deficit reduction, the legislators said.

"For the first time ever, it will be in the companies' interest to comply with--not circumvent--restrictions on sales and marketing to children," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

Under the other bill, smoking would be banned or restricted to separately ventilated rooms in public buildings, including government and privately owned non-residential buildings entered regularly by more than 10 people. The legislation would also ban smoking on all flights by U.S. airlines originating from or landing in the U.S.

Tobacco company spokesmen declined to comment on the bills.

Though both issues have been discussed in the tobacco negotiations, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said the proposed legislation "takes a tougher stand on the issues than current proposals in the talks.

"This legislation clearly marks the field of play for any settlement as far as these two critical issues are concerned," he added. Durbin and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the other co-sponsor, earlier authored legislation that banned smoking on domestic flights of six hours or less.

The legislation was introduced just two days before former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and former Food and Drug Administration director David Kessler convened the first of several public meetings with officials from major public health organizations. The meetings are designed to set out criteria for an acceptable settlement of pending tobacco litigation. The anti-smoking legislators and key figures in the public health world have recently emerged as a third force in the tobacco negotiations.

The talks were adjourned late last week after several attorneys general said the industry could not get as much protection from future litigation as had been discussed earlier.

This prompted industry negotiators, who are pressing for an accord to limit the tobacco companies' future legal liability, to tell the attorneys general to, in effect, "get their act together," and come back with a clear position on the issue, according to sources close to the negotiations. Several attorneys general said they were working on their proposals in numerous telephone conference calls this week.

"We have taken the most conservative position," on the issue of smokers' rights to sue, said Mississippi Atty. Gen. Mike Moore, the lead negotiator for 32 state attorneys general who have filed massive suits against the industry.

Moore said in an interview that in return for industry creation of a large compensation fund for plaintiffs who win civil lawsuits, the attorneys general would support legislation that would restrict class actions against the tobacco companies. However, he said, there would be no limitation on punitive damages under such a proposal.

Moore flew to Washington on Tuesday in an attempt to shore up backing for a possible settlement amid signs that support for a deal was eroding.

On Monday, Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Serv- ices, said any settlement that would require congressional enabling legislation would be reviewed closely. White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said that "very careful review" would be required "to make sure we achieve the best possible public health outcome, irrespective of how [negotiators] deal with other issues on the table."

Moore said he still hopes to reach a settlement that "could start saving millions of lives immediately." He said recent criticism of the negotiators has troubled him.

"What's frustrating for me and the other attorneys general," he said, "is we already have agreement with the industry to kill Joe Camel, to kill the Marlboro Man, to get complete restrictions on advertising and marketing, plus we are very close to getting complete agreement on FDA jurisdiction over nicotine as a drug. . . . We have the tobacco industry where we want them and I don't want them to get away."

Nonetheless, Moore acknowledged that the talks might falter, in which case he would go forward with his trial against the industry starting July 7.

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