Big Tobacco says it's breaking off talks with Congress over a tobacco settlement. Actually, cigarette makers were never included in the talks. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, purposefully excluded them.
The Arizonan said their inclusion might enable them to block the strong, bipartisan anti-smoking legislation his committee passed by a whopping 19-1 margin. Big Tobacco finds the McCain bill anathema. Taxes are much higher than what was agreed to with 40 state attorneys-general last June and the liability protections much less.
Even so, health and anti-smoking activists say the McCain bill is still too soft and are urging President Clinton to make it even tougher. Though we have no sympathy for cigarette manufacturers -- they have deceived and lied to the public for decades -- it's certainly understandable why, as a business, they are going to war against the settlement brewing in Washington.
They feel it is punitive and would severely damage the bottom line, if not drive them into bankruptcy. "We agreed to change the way we do business," says a Big Tobacco ad running in several national newspapers, "not to go out of business."
Even if the ad exaggerates, as critics claim it does, the fact is Congress has taken a harder line, cigarette stocks have taken a beating. Tobacco executives figure stockholders would be better off for now without a settlement than with one. And, in fact, the stocks rallied after RJR Nabisco announced any chance for a deal this year with Congress is dead.
Of course, Congress can pass anti-smoking legislation anyway, but the subsequent court fights -- especially forced restrictions on commercial speech -- could take years to resolve. Meanwhile, the companies could continue their advertising blitzes to recruit new smokers among the young -- exactly what Congress and the administration say they want to avoid.
Hence, cigarette manufacturers -- despite their rightfully earned pariah status -- do hold some cards. If the legislative purpose is to curb teen smoking -- as opposed to raiding Big Tobacco coffers to fund more Big Government programs -- then the tobacco firms need to voluntarily surrender some of their legal rights. And the only way to achieve that is for Congress to invite them to the table and try to secure their cooperation, as the attorneys-general did last summer.