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Clinton Implores Congress to Address Teen Smoking Issue

By Myron Levin
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

President Clinton Wednesday urged Congress to attack teen smoking through comprehensive legislation along the lines of the giant tobacco peace accord - but with stiffer industry payments to raise cigarette prices, and unfettered authority for the Food and Drug Administration to regulate nicotine levels in cigarettes.

Although Clinton refused to embrace the $368.5 billion tobacco deal, he warmly praised the state attorneys general whose mega-lawsuits brought the industry to the bargaining table and led to the agreement announced June 20. And in a ceremony in the Oval Office as several attorneys general and prominent anti-smoking leaders looking on, Clinton outlined principles to be embodied in legislation that largely tracked provisions of the deal.

But there were significant differences as well. Clinton called for industry payments and penalties sufficient to raise cigarette prices over the next decade by up to $1.50 per pack - roughly twice the increase that would result from the proposed settlement. Aimed to discourage smoking by price-conscious teens, such an increase would would bring prices more in line with other western countries where cigarette taxes often range between $2 and $4.

"This is not primarily about money," Clinton said. "This is about changing the behavior of the tobacco companies, the behavior of the American people, the future behavior of our children."

Dr. David Kessler, former head of the FDA and a leading critic of the tobacco deal, hailed Clinton's statement as a victory for public health in one of many impromptu news conferences that broke out near the White House after the event.

"Saying he's willing to go up to $1.50, if necessary, is exactly the right approach," Kessler said.

In his long-awaited statement, Clinton did not say if he would accept the liability protections that had been the cigarette makers' whole reason for negotiating the tobacco deal. Bruce Reed, Clinton's domestic policy adviser, said later that administration officials "had some concerns" about certain of the immunity provisions, but he did not elaborate.

Industry response was critical, if a bit subdued. "We agree with his (Clinton's) stated goal of reducing underage use of tobacco products," Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and two other firms said in a joint statement. But they said the deal announced June 20 "still represents the most achievable balance."

"We have agreed to pay a total of $368.5 billion over a 25-year period," which is "an unprecedented amount of money," said J. Philip Carlton, an industry lawyer. "It would certainly be unacceptable to try to raise the financial terms of this agreement."

Congressional response was predictably mixed, with many Democrats praising Clinton's stance - although some, including Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said the $1.50 increase might not be effective if phased in over 10 years. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., announced that he will seek a $1.50 per pack cigarette tax increase independent of any comprehensive bill.

Republicans also criticized Clinton for taking three months to weigh in with a general statement rather than a specific legislative blueprint.

Administration officials said they believed it would be more effective to outline general principles and negotiate terms with Congress, rather than send up a specific package and let critics pick at the details. They said meetings between White House staff and congressional leaders should begin soon.

Since announcement of the tobacco deal June 20, Congress has been largely in a holding pattern while awaiting Clinton's verdict. Some attorneys general who had negotiated with the industry - and had been encouraged by the White House to do so - privately had voiced resentment that the deal was languishing and was being attacked as a sellout to Big Tobacco.

"We're pretty excited today about what the president has done," said Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, who filed the first state anti-tobacco lawsuit and was lead negotiator in settlement talks.

"He (Clinton) thinks we ought to build and toughen up the settlement," Moore said. "For 90 days, we were trying to get the president to support this thing, and finally he did."

However, all parties have conceded that it is too late to move a major tobacco deal through Congress before it adjourns in late October or early November. That means Congress will not take up the measure in earnest until early next year.