Lining up with key Democratic lawmakers, Vice President Al Gore lent the White House’s support Wednesday to a tough tobacco-control bill that sharply would increase cigarette taxes and bring stricter regulation to the industry.
The event signaled a growing Democratic consensus on tobacco talks which are expected to dominate Congress in coming months. But even with Gore’s blessing, it was clear that the bill unveiled Wednesday is not the last word.
No Republicans back the proposal, introduced by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. And some Democratic senators from tobacco-producing states have cautioned that unless efforts to enact comprehensive anti-smoking legislation are sincerely bipartisan, they will fail.
“We simply do not believe partisan proposals have any realistic chance of becoming law,” Sen. Wendell Ford, D-Ky., wrote in a letter to Gore on Tuesday. Democratic Sens. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, Charles Robb of Virginia and Max Cleland of Georgia also signed the letter.
Still, Gore’s appearance at a packed Capitol Hill news conference was significant in establishing a starting point for more intense debate about the $368.5 billion nationwide settlement proposed to Congress last year.
Surrounded by middle school students and some of Congress’ most ardent anti-smoking activists, Gore praised the efforts of a Senate Democratic tobacco task force that had developed the bill.
“President Clinton strongly supports this bill and would gladly sign this bill if Congress puts it on his desk,” the vice president said.
Gore did leave open the possibility of working with lawmakers on other legislation, saying he expects Republicans to introduce other plans.
Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is working with fellow Republican leaders on tobacco issues, said he hopes Ford’s letter to Gore will force the administration “back into a position of making legislation rather than creating a political issue.”
To anyone who would listen, the cigarette makers who helped negotiate the original nationwide settlement proposal called Conrad’s bill “seriously flawed.”
Among other things, Scott Williams, an industry spokesman, noted that Conrad’s proposal does not include the tough advertising restrictions in the original settlement. He added that such provisions would be unconstitutional unless the industry is willing to go along, and he said Conrad’s bill couldn’t get that kind of support.
“Based on the terms of Sen. Conrad’s approach, the industry would be unable to consent to these provisions,” Williams said in a statement.
“Let me see if I understand that correctly,” Gore countered. “They’re saying that unless legislation is formed to the liking of the companies, they will keep on targeting children. Do I understand that correctly?”
Conrad’s bill would push up cigarette taxes by $1.50 a pack over three years, give the federal Food and Drug Administration full regulatory authority over nicotine and hold the tobacco industry responsible for reducing teen smoking. Previously, Clinton has expressed support for raising the tax by $1.50 over 10 years.
The bill also would settle lawsuits against the industry by state and local governments. But unlike last summer’s agreement between the tobacco companies and 40 state attorneys general, the bill would not give the industry immunity from future health-care lawsuits.
Money also would be earmarked to help tobacco farmers hurt by a decreased demand for their crop. But the exact amount was not clear Wednesday. Fact sheets on the proposal said it would mean $10 billion over five years to help growers. But Conrad said it would set aside $28 billion over 25 years to help farmers and rural communities.
The proposal does not specify how growers should be helped, leaving those details to be worked out among lawmakers.
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