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A Historic Victory for American Health

Clinton and Congress should act quickly on cigarette accord

June 22, 1997

In the end, Friday's tobacco settlement happened because the disparate interests of youngsters and tobacco company stockholders were both served. But for members of Congress and President Clinton, both of whom must now approve the accord, the health of American youths, not the fiscal health of cigarette makers, must be the primary concern.

After months of intense negotiations the cigarette companies have been wrestled to their knees, if not to the ground. Under the historic deal announced Friday, the companies would agree to major restrictions that every American can only understand as an admission that tobacco products are intended to cause addiction and result in illness and often death. No less historic are proposed tough limits on the cigarette advertising and sales practices through which manufacturers have for so long and so shamelessly targeted youngsters in the search for new smokers to replace those who died.

The deal resolves 40 state lawsuits against the industry, including one filed this month by California seeking recovery of money spent treating sick smokers, and, separately, 20 class actions filed on behalf of individual smokers.

While the companies sought predictability and an end to a barrage of claims, the outlines of the massive deal primarily appear to represent a victory for the public. Smokers should see dire new warnings on cigarette packages. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration would have uncontested regulatory power over tobacco products, including the authority to reduce the levels of addictive nicotine, perhaps eventually eliminating it.

The industry has agreed to reimburse states for the Medicaid costs of treating sick smokers. With presidential and congressional approval, quit-smoking programs and anti-smoking ads will be funded as part of a $368.5-billion industry payout over 25 years. The Marlboro Man and Joe Camel will be history.

Cigarette makers had long insisted that immunity from lawsuits was their price for settlement, but here they gave ground. They would pay punitive damages to the states as punishment for past misconduct, and smokers now sick could still sue to recover actual damages, such as medical costs. Future lawsuits by smokers could claim both actual and punitive damages.

The limits involving teenagers are the biggest and possibly most lasting public health victories. The FDA could impose more rules to protect youngsters from tobacco marketing and put tougher controls on sales to minors. The industry and the states have committed to specific goals for reducing youth smoking.

Still, the deal has some weak spots. Former FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler is concerned about a provision that the FDA must prove there would be no cigarette black market if nicotine levels were regulated. That's absurd, and Congress should dump this, along with an overly generous timetable for establishing a nicotine ban.

These concerns aside, Mississippi Atty. Gen. Michael Moore, who was a lead negotiator in the talks, may be right when he calls the deal "the most historic public health achievement in history." Congress and the president should strengthen this deal where it is weak, moving quickly to make it law.

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