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U.S. on sidelines as IMF moves to help Greece in financial crisis

WASHINGTONThe United States is the largest shareholder in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and has played a forceful, interventionist role in financial crises since the early 1990s, in countries like Mexico, South Korea, Russia and Argentina.

But as Europe gropes for a solution to a debt crisis that threatens to spread from Greece to Portugal and Spain, American officials have been resolutely low-profile.

“There’s a sense in the Obama administration that it’s Europe’s responsibility to straighten out problems in the euro zone,” said Randall W. Stone, a political scientist at the University of Rochester and an authority on the IMF.

American involvement has so far been behind the scenes. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner discussed the crisis last Friday with other finance ministers from the Group of 20 nations, and again on Sunday with the Greek finance minister, George Papaconstantinou, who was here for the IMF spring meetings. President Barack Obama spoke with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, by phone on Wednesday.

But in public, American officials have said little beyond bland statements of support for the IMF and the European Union.

“This is clearly a European issue and we think that it’s important that the European leaders and the European structures be centrally involved in the management of the problem and the resolution of the problem,” said an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

—Sewell Chan, The New York Times

Australia fights tobacco with taxes and plain packs

Australia could become the first nation to ban brand images and colors on cigarette packages under a wide-ranging set of anti-smoking measures the government unveiled Thursday.

Starting July 1, 2012, tobacco products would have to be sold in the plainest of packaging — with few or no logos, brand images or colors. Promotional text would be restricted to brand and product names in a standard color, position, type style and size.

Restrictions on Internet advertising, a hefty increase in the tax on tobacco products and new anti-smoking campaigns are also among the initiatives.

The government said the moves would cut tobacco consumption and generate billions of dollars of revenue that would be plowed into the health system. The action won praise from the World Health Organization, which welcomed the measures as “a new gold standard for the regulation of tobacco products.”

Leading tobacco companies strongly criticized the measures, questioning their effectiveness and saying they would encourage counterfeiting.

“Plain packaging has not been introduced in any country in the world and there is no evidence to support the government’s notion that this will reduce consumption,” Imperial Tobacco said in a statement from its Sydney office. “Plain packaging would seriously harm our brands and infringe the intellectual property rights in which both Imperial Tobacco and its shareholders have invested.”

The measures announced on Thursday also include a 25 percent increase in the excise tax on tobacco products, which was to come into force as of midnight. That will increase the cost of a packet of 30 cigarettes by about 2.16 Australian dollars, to around 16.70 Australian dollars ($15.40).

—Bettina Wassener and Meraiah Foley, The New York Times

On health care law, action shifts from Congress to the states

WASHINGTON The fight over the new health care law shifted Thursday to the states, as some governors claimed federal money to run a new insurance pool for people with serious medical problems, while others said that they would not operate the program.

Friday is the deadline for states to tell the Obama administration whether they want to run the high-risk insurance pool for uninsured people with pre-existing conditions or whether they will leave the task to Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services.

Democratic officials in Montana, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin, among other states, said they intended to operate the program under contract with the federal government. They were joined by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, a Republican.

But Republican officials in Georgia, Nebraska, Nevada and Utah turned down the opportunity to run the pool, as did at least one Democratic governor, Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming. Freudenthal said that he worried that the state’s federal allotment of $8 million “may prove insufficient” to subsidize coverage for the next three and a half years. The temporary federal program runs from July of this year to Jan. 1, 2014, when insurers will be required to accept all applicants.

Schwarzenegger said, “We are ready to roll up our sleeves and work with the federal government.” California expects to receive $761 million. 2014.

Amendment tightens law on state secrets in China

BEIJINGChina’s legislature has imposed tighter requirements on Web and telecommunications companies to shield the nation’s state secrets, which are often defined as including a broad array of information the authorities de0em detrimental to security.

The amendment to the state secrets law, adopted Thursday and set to take effect Oct. 1, obligates network operators and service providers to cooperate with the police, state security officials and prosecutors in investigating leaks of state secrets. On discovering a leak, they must promptly block it and report it to higher authorities, according to a final draft distributed at a news conference in Beijing. Regulatory or security authorities would punish those who fail to comply.

—Jonathan Ansfield, The New York Times