Originally created 05/17/98

Smoking bill heads to Senate

WASHINGTON -- After months of hearings and heated political rhetoric, the Senate is expected to take up Congress' leading tobacco bill this week.

But if U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell has his way, the debate won't just be about curbing teen-age smoking. Mr. Coverdell, R-Ga., is vowing to attach an amendment to the bill to escalate the war on the use of illegal drugs, an epidemic he sees as an even greater threat to America's youth than tobacco.

In this congressional election year, Republicans are taking aim at what they perceive as a lax attitude toward drugs by President Clinton, even as he pushes for broad new government regulation of tobacco.

"Why is the administration attacking tobacco and not drug abuse?" Mr. Coverdell said. "Teen-agers will tell you drugs are the No. 1 problem. ... To be silent on the drug piece is mind-boggling policy."

Mr. Coverdell's Drug-Free Neighborhoods Act calls for more money for federal drug interdiction efforts, a crackdown on money laundering by drug dealers, and registration with local law enforcement of major drug criminals released from prison. The bill would tie drug convictions to student loan eligibility and driver's licenses.

The tobacco bill -- sponsored by U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. -- would raise the federal tax on tobacco by $1.10 per cigarette pack in five years and give the Food and Drug Administration broad regulatory authority over tobacco. An amendment approved by the Senate Finance Committee late last week would boost the price increase even higher: $1.50 a pack over three years.

The measure also would limit the tobacco industry's ability to market to children by placing restrictions on billboard and magazine advertising.

The McCain bill is the only tobacco legislation that has cleared a congressional committee since June, when negotiators for 40 state attorneys general suing the industry and tobacco company officials announced a $368 billion settlement.

When the McCain bill, approved overwhelmingly by the Senate Commerce Committee, increased that payout to at least $516 billion over 25 years, industry representatives abandoned their cooperative stance, vowing to oppose the measure. Other government analyses have put the bill even higher -- up to $800 billion.

Part of that increase -- $28.5 billion -- would be used to buy out tobacco farmers and help communities dependent on the crop cope with the bill's effects. The June settlement made no mention of tobacco farmers.

While tobacco farmers long have objected to the concept of government regulations targeting a legal crop, they seem to recognize that legislation is inevitable given the political climate, said Bill Novelli, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

"They see the writing on the wall, but what they want is a soft landing," he said.

Tobacco farmers are anxious for legislation to be enacted to end the atmosphere of uncertainty that has surrounded their crop for two years, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin said.

"They want it resolved. The quicker, the better," he said. "(The McCain bill) is not totally what the farmers want, but it's as close as you can get."

But the bill's chances are far from certain. Aside from the issue of whether to tie anti-drug initiatives to the bill, many Republicans see the measure as a back-door way to raise money to fuel increased government spending.

Mr. Clinton helped stir up that controversy by setting aside part of the money anticipated by the tax increase on cigarettes for new education and child-care programs he proposed in his 1999 budget request.

Audrey Mullen, executive director of Americans for Tax Reform, compared the president's agenda to the 1993 tax increase he pushed through Congress as a deficit-reduction measure and his ill-fated health-care system overhaul.

"The American people rejected that proposed massive expansion of government in 1994, and they will do so again in 1998," she said.

"Anything that has as an agenda with new money for new programs is going to be in trouble in the Senate," Mr. Coverdell said.

Mr. Coverdell's attempt to attach anti-drug provisions to the tobacco bill also is likely to run into opposition. Mr. Novelli accused Republicans of being more interested in using the drug issue as a weapon against Democrats than in enacting legislation to curb teen smoking.

"Nobody would dispute the fact that illegal drugs are a problem," he said. "But if they try to put these two things together, it's not going to work. They're going to bring the whole thing crashing down, and we don't want that."


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