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Congress' Tobacco Support Quickly Going Up in Smoke

Politics: Broad public disdain for industry, huge pot of gold from penalties prove irresistible to lawmakers.

April 08, 1998|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Nobody can say for sure how much cigarettes will cost when the dust finally settles in Congress. Upward of $3 a pack? Quite likely. As much as $4 or even more? Even that is possible.

And that's not all. Under the tobacco bill approved overwhelmingly by the Senate Commerce Committee last week, the Marlboro Man would disappear from billboards and magazines commonly read by teenagers. No longer would cigarette brand logos be emblazoned on baseball caps or T-shirts. Instead, ads would proliferate showing kids warning other kids that the tobacco companies are out to hook them and kill them.

Seldom since Carrie Nation stormed Capitol Hill to whip up sentiment for Prohibition early in this century has Congress shown such crusading zeal. As a result, it may be on the way to attaching stigma to the act of smoking more successfully than Prohibition did drinking.

At least in the Commerce Committee, the usual ideological restraints succumbed to the backlash against Big Tobacco. Republicans accepted Democratic-style regulation and the equivalent of a massive tax increase. Democrats embraced a moral crusade of the sort usually identified with the GOP.

"It's a blend of Populist Republican morality with Democratic regulation," said Darrell West, a Brown University political scientist.

The Senate bill contains far more anti-smoking measures than the total of all other such initiatives approved by Congress in the nearly 35 years since the first surgeon general's warning that smoking could be harmful. It is as if lawmakers were trying to atone for years of taking millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the tobacco industry and turning a deaf ear to the pleadings of anti-smoking groups.

The full Senate, if it changes the committee's bill at all, more than likely will make it tougher still. Senators of both parties will try to boost the $1.10-a-pack price increase that the committee bill would impose on cigarettes over the next five years and tighten the penalties on tobacco companies that continue to market cigarettes to teens.

House's Bill Might Be Gentler

No legislation has yet emerged in the House. Because lawmakers from tobacco-growing states are more numerous there than in the Senate, a House bill might be gentler on the industry--but after the Senate Commerce Committee's 19-1 vote, nobody is taking any bets.

The tobacco industry was hurt in part because it was in the wrong place at the wrong time--just as Congress was looking for a broadly popular domestic policy initiative.

"Congress doesn't have much of a consensus about what it wants to do domestically and the 'evil empire' [the Soviet Union]--something really despicable and hateful--is gone," said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist.

Members of Congress, he said, "can feel they are on the side of the angels when they bring the hammer down and raise tobacco prices and spend [the revenue] on 'healthy' programs."

Burnishing the political luster of beating up on Big Tobacco are two distinct factors:

* A sharp increase in public abhorrence of the tobacco industry.

* A recognition in Congress that the industry can be the source of billions of dollars that would be available to spend on lawmakers' favorite programs.

Public opinion was pushed over the edge when formerly secret internal documents showed that the tobacco companies had known for years about the dangers of smoking and had lied about it.

"The bald assertions they were making over the years that nicotine was not addictive and that they weren't marketing to kids were vastly untrue," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.). "It's tougher and tougher for a member of Congress to be seen as making peace with the tobacco companies."

Anti-smoking groups saw that the way to press President Clinton and Congress to take up their cause was as a children's crusade.

As the Senate Commerce Committee debated the tobacco bill, Republican Bill Frist, a heart surgeon from the tobacco-growing state of Tennessee, admonished his colleagues "to keep in mind those 12- or 13-year-olds who are lured into smoking something that ultimately condemns them to a premature death."

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said he wants to impose strict export controls on tobacco products to protect children around the world. He inserted provisions in the bill that would--among other things--help foreign countries and overseas public health organizations pay for anti-smoking programs and tobacco control activities.

"On this issue, the public isn't split," said Matt Myers, general counsel for the National Center for Tobacco Free Kids. "It is now indefensible to appear to be protecting the tobacco industry. The politics of tobacco have become unique."

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