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THE TOBACCO SETTLEMENT

Smokers Blow Hot and Cold on Settlement

Reaction: Tobacco users offer grudging support for a deal they say may benefit the young. Some grumble about higher prices.

June 21, 1997|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Where there was smoke, there was little ire Friday as smokers reacted with the resignation of the semi-repentant to potential hefty price hikes on cigarettes, thanks to a tentative settlement between the tobacco industry and its critics.

Of course, some smokers fumed. Others said they would try to quit if the price of cigarettes jumped sharply.

But a sampling of smokers, nonsmokers and health advocates offered general, though sometimes grudging, applause for the agreement under which tobacco companies will pay nearly $370 billion over 25 years. Most of the money will cover the cost of campaigns to prevent smoking--particularly among children--and improve public health.

Tobacco industry watchers predicted that the price of a pack of cigarettes could increase to $3 or more as tobacco companies seek to pass along the financial pain of the penalties and decreased sales to consumers.

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Hours after the historic agreement was announced, Orange resident Patrick Thomas cradled his 5-month-old son, Dan, in the crook of one arm, clutched a bag containing three packs of Marlboro 100s in the other, and weighed the pros and cons.

On the one hand--the one holding the cigarettes--Thomas bridles at increased government regulation and the inevitable price increases to his pack-a-day habit.

On the other hand--the one supporting a chubby thigh--there is Dan.

"I don't want him to smoke," said Thomas, 27. "The part about keeping younger kids from starting isn't so bad."

Camille Jiron of Northridge, taking a smoking break outside the Vons store where she works as a cashier, said she likes the settlement because "anything that will discourage young people from smoking is good. I tell everyone that comes through here that if you're not hooked, don't start. But at least this is some sort of message."

Thousand Oaks resident Robert Martin, who has been smoking more than two packs of cigarettes per day for 18 of his 46 years, said the tobacco industry's settlement is justice served. Martin has suffered two heart attacks and undergone surgery to repair the damage.

"I feel the cigarette companies should be liable," he said as he puffed a cigarette outside a cigar store.

"We're addicted," said 29-year-old Mark Jackowski, a paralegal in downtown Houston. "We have no choice. Fifty cents, a dollar, jack up the price of cigarettes all you want, we're still there. Gotta have 'em."

Andre Thomas, a 33-year-old executive assistant in a downtown Atlanta accounting firm, was enjoying a peaceful afternoon cigarette break in the sunshine of the courtyard outside his office building--until he heard about the tobacco settlement.

"The government has gone too far," said Thomas, who has smoked for two years. "It is an issue of a person's right to do what they want to do with their own bodies.

"It is up to us to use our own discretion on whether we choose to smoke or not," Thomas said. "Eventually some smokers will stop and I will probably be one of them."

In Northwest Miami, Ayleen Perez said she is not proud of her four-year habit. The 20-year-old, who works full time at Sears while attending college, said the higher price would make a difference to her.

"I'm a student and I don't have that much money. I might smoke more sparingly," Perez said. "It would make me so upset, I might just give up rather than pay" the higher prices.

Anti-smoking advocates were skeptical of Friday's historic settlement.

"We oppose any limits on liability for the tobacco industry," said Chris Eftychiou, spokesman for the American Lung Assn. of Orange County. "We're not confident this agreement is in the best interests of public health."

"I'm suspicious of anything to do with the tobacco industry," said Marilyn Pritchard, coordinator for the Orange County Health Care Agency's Tobacco Use Prevention Program. "I fear there are loopholes in this settlement that are yet to be discovered. The tobacco companies always come out ahead."

Esther Schiller of Newbury Park is the executive secretary of SAFE--Smoke-free Air for Everyone--a Southern California organization of nonsmokers who say they've been injured or disabled by secondhand smoke.

Schiller said she doesn't trust the settlement any more than she trusts the tobacco industry, which, she said, managed to effectively get around bans on television advertising through corporate sponsorships of sporting and arts events.

"They'll find a way of spinning straw into gold," she said.

Schiller is particularly bothered that the accord continues to allow smoking in bars.

"If they continue to exclude bars, then they are continuing to provide a place where people can be sociable and where smoking will be socially acceptable and cigar smoking will continue to flourish and we will continue to deny access to a large part of the population" that does not smoke, she said.

Chicagoan Ben Brock, 34 and the father of one, has "never smoked anything" and thinks the settlement is a good start but doesn't go far enough.

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