March 30, 1998 in Nation/World

Sides Agree On Most Facets Of Tobacco Bill

Laurie Kellman Associated Press
 

Negotiators on Sunday agreed on most of the provisions of Congress’ leading tobacco bill that would charge the industry about $138 billion more and impose harsher restrictions than the settlement companies and states reached in June.

Negotiators also approved for the Food and Drug Administration broad authority to regulate nicotine products, a victory for the health community and the White House. But the bill also would set strict guidelines for the agency if it ever tries to ban nicotine.

For all the progress, negotiators left unfinished the central issues of debate - how much, if any, legal protection to give the industry, and specifically how to spend the $506 billion over 25 years the companies would pay.

Several negotiators in the round-the-clock talks - involving about two-dozen major players including representatives of federal agencies, private health care groups and the White House - said the sponsor, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, likely would announce the plan for legal protections at midweek and leave the funding question unanswered, to be debated on the Senate floor.

In a statement, McCain said the draft summary his staff released on Sunday should serve as a “solid foundation for the debate that lies ahead.”

Democrats were more cautious. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., reported “some progress,” but one aide said “nobody will be buying” the bill unless agreements are struck on liability and other matters.

The issue already has featured rhetorical fireworks as lawmakers, prodded by the Clinton Administration, consider terms for a national tobacco policy only months before the midterm elections. McCain, R-Ariz., plans for his panel to formally consider the bill on Wednesday, aiming to report it to the full Senate by the end of the week, when Congress leaves for Easter recess.

McCain’s panel has used as its starting point the $368 billion settlement reached in June among the companies and 40 states suing them. Companies would pay that amount over 25 years to settle the lawsuits and agree to curb their advertising practices.

In exchange, the industry would receive immunity from most lawsuits, particularly class actions. Without that legal protection, tobacco companies say, they would be forced into bankruptcy.

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BETWEEN THE LINES

Other provisions of the bill, to be formally unveiled today, would:

Provide general guidelines on how to spend the money raised by the act. The money, according to the draft, should be used only for tobacco-related programs as opposed, for example, to increased general spending on schools like that being pushed by the administration. The money would go to things like health research, public health care reimbursement and farmer assistance.

Establish a nonprofit corporation and funds for “international control programs,” in a bow to committee Democrats such as Wyden, who would block a bill that did not address overseas tobacco sales. The provision also would prohibit federal funds from to promote tobacco exports and forbids U.S. tobacco company employees from marketing to children overseas.

Raise the price of cigarettes per pack by $1.10 by 2003.

Require attorneys fees to be set by a three-member panel.

Establish a depository for cigarette companies’ internal documents.

Allow local and state governments to impose additional tobacco product control measures.


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