President Clinton is expected to assert that government action is necessary to curb teen smoking in a speech today in Charlotte, N.C., but he is unlikely to outline what he proposes to do about it before Thursday.
With tobacco state Democrats howling for moderation while liberals clamor for strong curbs, Clinton is expected to walk a politically delicate middle line on the question of how far to go toward federal regulation of smoking.
Restoring Democratic control over the House and preventing smoking-related diseases in millions of young people both are factors influencing his decision, informed sources said. Aides said Clinton probably will lay out proposals for action Thursday at a White House news conference.
The president is expected to stop short of empowering the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate nicotine as an addictive drug, bowing before both the political sensitivity of Southern Democrats and the practical concern that such a move could bog down in years of gridlock by lawsuit.
However, Clinton is likely to call for stronger steps against teen smoking than the voluntary ones being urged by lawmakers seeking compromises with the giant tobacco companies. Specifically, Clinton is expected to urge:
A ban on cigarette vending machines in places where young people congregate;
Restraints on the advertising that tobacco companies can use, aimed at eliminating “be-cool” Joe Camel kinds of come-ons;
Restrictions on cigarette ads near schools;
Federal enforcement of compliance with these and other possible restraints.
Anti-tobacco advocates and health officials are pushing for restrictions because smoking among teenagers is rising faster than in any other group. The federal government estimates that 3,000 minors start smoking each day and that 1,000 of them will die from smoking-related diseases.
“I think in the usual Clinton White House way, they’ll come out with some sort of tortured regulation along with the (moderates’ voluntary) proposal,” said one congressional aide close to negotiations. “I think they’re going to make this a lot more complicated than it needs to be.”
White House press secretary Mike McCurry said Tuesday that Clinton still is refining his approach.
“This is a complicated issue involving both regulation and then policy-making on the president’s part. … There are lots of different ways that you could achieve the policy that the president has in mind.”
Clinton said “we need a tough and mandatory-type program” to curb teen smoking in a Monday night interview with National Public Radio, but he voiced concern that outright regulation might prompt lawsuits from tobacco companies that could prevent effective action for years “while kids continue to be bombarded with advertisements plainly designed to get them to smoke.”
Asked if he rules out voluntary restraints by tobacco companies, Clinton said, “I believe we have to have some means of knowing that whatever we all agree to, whatever people say they’re going to do is done.”
Whatever Clinton proposes, the political stakes are high.
Clinton has little chance of winning any southern states outside Arkansas in 1996, analysts agree, but if he crusades now for overzealous federal regulation of tobacco, he could drag down other already vulnerable Democratic lawmakers. Democratic congressmen Charlie Rose and W.G. “Bill” Hefner of North Carolina and John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina head the list.
Democrats need only pick up a net gain of 16 seats to recapture the House, but the loss of any incumbent makes that prospect less possible. That may explain why House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., has taken up the tobacco-state Democrats’ cause as his own, pushing Clinton to compromise.
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