The Smoke Thickens At The Tobacco Talks

Activists split over tactics, and that could weaken their hand

It's a remarkable development. At the same table sit cigarette company CEOs, state attorneys general, even Matthew Myers, the influential general counsel of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids. With so many interests represented, no wonder some Wall Street analysts predict a "global settlement" of tobacco litigation within weeks.

Indeed, the outlines are in focus: significant new protection from lawsuits for tobacco companies in exchange for accepting Food & Drug Administration jurisdiction, new regulations such as advertising restrictions, and at least $300 billion for victims of smoking-related diseases. "The very presence of these people at the table suggests goodwill on both sides," says Smith Barney Inc. analyst Martin Feldman.

HOPPING MAD. There's just one problem: While Myers talks, the rest of the antismoking and public-health community is balking. That's bad news for the tobacco industry. If the American heart, lung, and cancer societies and other key activist groups are united in opposition to a deal, then it's a tough sell politically. The White House, key members of Congress, and the state attorneys general won't get near a deal that the antismoking community brands a sellout.

That's troublesome, since most antitobacco activists are hopping mad-- both at the proposed settlement and at Myers himself for lending it legitimacy. The proposed plan "is a total sell-out to industry," charges William T. Godshall, director of SmokeFree Pennsylvania. "The public-health community has been locked out of this negotiation."

The antismoking groups agree that any deal is fraught with peril: Just look at the record, they say. "Without exception, federal legislation designed to favor the public health has worked to the advantage of the industry," says University of Michigan tobacco policy expert Kenneth E. Warner. The 1965 law requiring labels on cigarette packs proved singularly ineffective in cutting smoking--and gave the industry new protections against liability lawsuits.

And now, activists fear, Washington won't do any better. No matter what the negotiators hammer out, "this Congress is not going to do anything that hurts companies more than it helps them," cautions Julia Carol, co-director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights. Specifically, health advocates worry that Congress will give the industry too much immunity, while watering down everything from FDA jurisdiction to advertising restrictions.

While activists--with the notable exception of Myers--are largely united against the shape and substance of the current talks, they are badly split on tactics. One faction vehemently opposes the very idea of a deal, no matter how much the industry claims to be giving up. But other activists argue that Big Tobacco's willingness to talk is a breakthrough that should be exploited. "Anytime someone wants to settle, you ought to at least hear them out," says former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. If a settlement is delayed, intense public anger against the industry may wane, antitobacco lawsuits may falter, and President Clinton's successor may not share his antitobacco views.

A PAIN? Even those moderates, however, want to go in with the right negotiating team--a high-powered group with the likes of Warner, Koop, or Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif), the leading health advocate in the House. Myers, they fear, is outnumbered and outgunned. They say he's the hand-picked choice of tobacco interests. Those fears are unwarranted, Myers insists. "While everyone else [in the antismoking world] thinks I'm selling them out, everyone in these meetings thinks I'm being the worst pain in the ass in the history of mankind," he says.

Myers' critics in the antismoking community aren't reassured. They believe that, united, they can oppose a bad deal. But they are split on whether to risk forging a compromise. Ultimately, their ability to resolve that ambivalence could be what makes or breaks a tobacco deal.

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