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Anti-Smoking Groups Appear to Close Ranks

Tobacco: Feuding factions move toward unified opposition to legal protections for industry.

January 23, 1998|ALISSA J. RUBIN and MYRON J. LEVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Fractious anti-smoking groups, seeking to heal an internal rift, appear to be moving toward unified opposition to legal protections for the tobacco industry, a stand that could further complicate prospects for congressional approval of the giant tobacco truce that the industry is desperately seeking.

In another potential blow to settlement prospects, several analysts said Thursday that allegations of misconduct involving President Clinton's relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky will distract the president at a time he is being called on for leadership in brokering a deal.

The allegations against Clinton have "put the tobacco deal at risk," said Gary Black, analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., who had consistently predicted a deal would be ratified this year.

Prodding anti-tobacco groups to close ranks are some members of Congress who want a clear statement of position from the public health lobby.

Efforts to unify the feuding groups have been led by former Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop and Matt Myers of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Koop is a leader of a faction that opposes any legal protections for tobacco companies. Myers has been a major force behind the Effective National Action to Control Tobacco, or ENACT, coalition, which had been willing to grant tobacco firms immunity from class-action lawsuits in return for curbs on tobacco advertising and multibillion-dollar payments by the industry to reimburse tax funds spent treating sick smokers and to fund anti-smoking programs.

"I think we're very close to being on the same wavelength," Koop said Thursday.

"The importance of a public- health coalition reaching a common position on the details of the settlement and implementing legislation cannot be overstated," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in a letter sent last weekend to 34 groups. McCain chairs the Commerce Committee, which will be heavily involved in crafting tobacco legislation.

With that in mind, the factions appear be trying to put aside lingering grievances.

"Dr. Koop is working very hard to bring all the public health groups together," said John R. Garrison, managing director of the American Lung Assn., who spoke at a news conference Thursday to announce the formation of the Save Lives Coalition, which represents 200 national, state and local groups that have taken a hard line on the immunity issue.

Said Myers of the Center for Tobacco-Free Kids: "Neither our organization nor any others is interested in giving the tobacco industry immunity or in any weakening of the civil justice system. . . . We are working with other organizations to clarify that position and bring people together."

Myers, the only public health activist who took part in talks that led last June to the proposed tobacco settlement, said his view and that of others in the ENACT coalition had changed about what could be accomplished against the once-impregnable tobacco industry.

"What is achievable [in Congress] is something we would have answered differently two months ago or 12 months ago," said Myers. "It would be a mistake for us to shoot too low," he added.

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