Tobacco: Where's The Fire?

What's the hurry? That's our reaction to the rush to settlement on the tobacco front. The pact is only a broad-strokes agreement that could--repeat, could--lead to a decent deal once it has gone through the Washington legislative mill. There's the rub. We need to see the political fine print. After all, we're talking about negotiations involving the two biggest campaign contributors, trial lawyers and tobacco companies. We've got long-standing ideological issues at stake, from the fate of the Food & Drug Administration to government's role in the nation's health. Toss in pity for tobacco farmers (subsidized by taxpayers), victims of cancer (who just might have some personal responsibility in their smoking), and this promises to be a giant spectacle. Given this intensely political arena, we want transparency in the upcoming negotiations, and the time to see just who is agreeing to what, and why.

So far, the focus of the tobacco talks has been on money and liability. In exchange for forking over $368.5 billion for their sins, the tobacco companies get to limit their liability. O.K. But the sine qua non of any settlement must be the public health. Bottom line: The deal has to produce a dramatic decline in teenage smoking. The anomaly of 90% of all nicotine addiction beginning in an age group that cannot legally purchase cigarettes has to end. The system of penalties and rewards proposed to accomplish this task doesn't even come close. The industry promises to cut youth smoking by 30% in five years, 50% in seven years, and 60% in 10 years, or pay a fine of $80 million per percentage point by which the target is missed. Let's try 10% a year and a fine of $800 million per point. And toss the 75% refund if a tobacco company doesn't hit the targets but does try hard. Results are the only thing that count.

Next, let the FDA regulate. On paper, the agreement gives the agency authority to cut levels of nicotine. But it then creates insurmountable hurdles before the agency can act. The most absurd would have the FDA prove that ratcheting down nicotine in cigarettes would not generate "significant demand for contraband." Huh? The agreement also allows the tobacco industry to take the FDA to court to dispute its evidence about contraband. This whole issue of contraband is ridiculous. If the settlement is to lower the level of addiction among teenage Americans, the FDA must have regulatory power to adjust nicotine levels. Period.

To get the kind of deal that focuses on public health, state attorneys general should also continue to litigate their cases and keep the pressure on Big Tobacco. The AGs called a halt to prosecution while they negotiated a big-bucks settlement. But public health, not money, must be the focus. That's why there's no need to rush to settlement. This deal must work for society, not just special interests. To this end, it should stop the relentless marketing of cigarettes to children. Unfortunately, it cannot force adults to take personal responsibility for their own choices. That, they must do on their own.

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