FLORENCE, S.C. -- Crippling taxes and regulations could await big tobacco companies if the industry kills the proposed national settlement and a bill designed to curb teen smoking, two U.S. senators told tobacco farmers Friday.
Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., and U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., delivered the warning to more than 500 tobacco farmers, warehousemen and supporters at a town hall meeting here in the heart of the state's tobacco country.
"They have to realize that the American people want us to act, and we will, one way or the other," Mr. McCain told the farmers. "If there is not a settlement, you will probably see increased taxes and a much increased role for the FDA (Food and Drug Administration)."
In June, the big tobacco companies signed a deal with state attorneys general to settle 40 state lawsuits by paying $368 billion and curbing marketing in return for significant legal protection.
That deal, RJR Nabisco chief Steven Goldstone said Wednesday, is dead because Congress and Mr. Clinton have tightened the provisions enough to kill his industry.
A pending bill by Mr. McCain to stop teen-age smoking would raise the industry's penalties and fines to half a trillion dollars -- without the legal protections -- so Mr. Goldstone pledged to work to kill it.
The McCain bill would require the tobacco companies to pay $506 billion over the next quarter century.
But it would not offer immunity from smoking-related lawsuits, as did the deal negotiated in 1997.
President Clinton talked to tobacco farmers in Kentucky on Thursday, and Mr. McCain and Mr. Hollings brought their case to the state's Pee Dee region Friday to rally farmers behind the bill and the settlement.
Also present were South Carolina Democratic Reps. Jim Clyburn and John Spratt, who represent the state's tobacco-growing region.
"Tobacco is truly the lifeblood of the Pee Dee," tobacco farmer Ray Galloway of Darlington said. Tobacco is the state's top cash crop, grown on some 2,000 farms and bringing in $200 million annually. The industry is responsible for more than 40,000 jobs.
Mr. McCain assured the farmers they would be protected under any settlement or bill that goes through Congress.
"It isn't the tobacco farmers that market cigarettes to kids," he said.
The mostly friendly and inquisitive crowd turned hostile for a second when 12-year-old Charles Land asked a question often muttered within the tobacco crowds.
"If y'all are attacking tobacco, what about alcohol?" the boy asked.
Mr. McCain avoided the question at first, but when it was repeated by Berkeley County tobacco farmer Tony Dennis, Mr. McCain said he was against alcohol and drug use as well but "I will not allow that to be a diversion."
Farmers complained that increased taxes and regulation against the tobacco companies would eventually filter down and hurt them as well.