WASHINGTON — President Clinton, seeking to fuel support for sweeping restrictions on the tobacco industry, on Thursday endorsed a bipartisan proposal that seeks a middle ground between curtailing the right to sue cigarette manufacturers and allowing unlimited damage awards.
The new plan would cap future damage award payments at $8 billion a year, considerably more than the industry has agreed to pay as part of a settlement of damage suits filed by the states. The plan also preserves the right of plaintiffs to participate in class-action lawsuits. But it rejects the position of anti-smoking advocates who oppose any limits on industry liability.
"We're working together to bring our country to the verge of one of the greatest public health achievements in the history of our nation, an historic triumph in our fight to protect our children from the deadly threat of tobacco," Clinton told an audience of state attorneys general.
"It is a good, tough bill," Clinton said of the legislation sponsored by Sens. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). "I hope it gets wide support. This legislation will save lives."
The Chafee legislation immediately drew criticism from partisans in the tobacco battle. Some anti-smoking advocates complained that it is not restrictive enough, while the tobacco industry described it as "punitive and patently unconstitutional."
But the measure has attracted some influential supporters. C. Everett Koop, former U.S. surgeon general, and David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, called the measure "tough medicine for a tough problem."
The bipartisan bill more than satisfies Clinton's minimum requirements for tobacco legislation. It would boost the price of cigarettes by $1.50 a pack, preserve the FDA's authority to regulate tobacco, restrict cigarette marketing that could influence young people, advance public health goals such as anti-smoking education and provide aid to tobacco farmers.
White House officials and anti-smoking advocates maintain that raising the price of cigarettes is a necessary step to reduce smoking among young people.
But the Chafee plan is less punitive than a competing measure drafted by Senate Democrats--and previously endorsed by the White House--that would impose no upper limit on damage awards in lawsuits brought by smokers.
Under a preliminary deal reached last June between the tobacco industry and 40 state attorneys general, cigarette makers would be protected from class-action lawsuits and exempted from punitive damage awards for past actions. In return, they would pay $368.5 billion to settle existing state lawsuits and would accept a near ban on tobacco advertising.
The terms of the settlement cannot take effect in the absence of legislation, because only Congress can shield the industry from future lawsuits. So far, legislation efforts have proceeded fitfully.
The mixed reaction to the Chafee bill reflects the fragile nature of the coalition that has been pushing for broad tobacco restrictions. Despite a recent attempt at reconciliation, the public health community remains divided between purists who believe the industry should receive no protection from future lawsuits, and those who are willing to accept some limits on company liability.
"We oppose the bill because it has a cap on liability and we don't think that's appropriate," said Paul Billings, deputy director of government relations for the American Lung Assn. "The other provisions look strong."
A public health coalition that includes the National Center for Tobacco Free Kids and the American Cancer Society endorsed the measure.
The tobacco industry had no immediate response to Clinton's endorsement of the Chafee measure. So far, it has indicated no willingness to abandon the far more generous legal protections included in the June settlement.
In his remarks to the attorneys general, Clinton also sought to answer critics who say the White House is pushing for a compromise because its budget proposals are counting on $65 billion from a tobacco settlement.
This "is not about money, it's not about the size of the prize we can extract from the tobacco industry," Clinton said. "It is about fulfilling our responsibilities to our children--as parents, as a government, as a nation."