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Analysis: Tobacco Battle Ends But Battle For The Issue Continues

By Janine Yagielski/AllPolitics


ATLANTA (June 19) -- Who is opposed to reducing teen smoking? Save the hard-hearted marketeer seeking "replacement smokers," the answer is no one. Then why did the most serious, comprehensive -- and bipartisan in creation -- legislation to curb the problem finally succumb this week?

The political battle for control of the teen-smoking issue already has begun and some strategists see a '98 midterm election issue in the making, but it's worth looking back first.

The bill came out of Republican Sen. John McCain's Commerce committee on a 19-1 vote on April 1. The bill included a $1.10 increase in the price of a pack of cigarettes and gave the FDA the ability to regulate nicotine as a drug and it restricted tobacco advertising. But conservative Republicans were already unimpressed.

Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) called it a "big government boondoggle cloaked in the language of 'protecting children.' "

Then on June 1, Senate Majority leader Trent Lott began to speak out on the initiative he would eventually kill with two procedural votes.

"The bill is teetering, teetering in the balance here, as to whether or not it's just going to collapse of its own weight. I mean, how much is enough?" Lott said.

Another factor was the five major tobacco companies' decision to walk away, and not to participate in any effort to get a comprehensive tobacco settlement through Congress this year.

Not only did they decide not to participate, they funded a $40 million dollar advertising campaign targeting the home markets of swing senators.

The bill hit the Senate floor on May 18 and although many compromises, including a tax break for married couples with incomes of up to $50,000, were added to satisfy Republicans, the ever increasing scope of the bill played into both the tobacco industry's and Republicans' argument that the "era of big government" was not dead.

The bill floundered, until the Republican leadership finally scuttled it on Wednesday.

Who's to blame?

After the tobacco companies pulled out of the agreement, were the Republicans drawn to their side because of large campaign contributions or did the growing scope of the bill really offend the GOP members' belief in small government?

The answer probably lies somewhere in between. And the debate on blame continues.

Would it have passed had the tobacco companies not pulled out? Probably.


Were Republicans just going through the motions? President Bill Clinton thinks so.

"They all got on record voting for these amendments and voting for the bill," Clinton said Friday. "And then they turn around and kill the bill, which leads us to believe that they intended to kill the bill all along, they just wanted enough good votes to be able to try to convince the voters back home that they really didn't want to kill the bill, they just had to.

"Now, the Republican majority may want the tobacco companies to run the Congress on this issue. I don't," Clinton added.

Would the bill have passed had it been more modest? Maybe.

Many Republicans think so.

"We've lost sight of the original noble cause of just dealing with teenage smoking and drug abuse," Lott said before the pivotal votes. "A lot of people think this is a cookie jar.

"I think a lot of us on the Republican side want to pass legislation that will reduce teen-age consumption and addiction to tobacco and to drugs," Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said on CNN's "Larry King Live." "We don't have to have a bill that costs hundreds of billions of dollars to do that."

The Next Battle

The question that could be important for the fall midterm elections is who gets blamed for the legislative failure.

If voters see it as another flawed scheme like Clinton's health care reform proposal, it could be the Democrats.

Or will this defeat be characterized as a Republican disaster like the government shutdown of 1995? Has the Republican leadership again misjudged the ire of mothers whose pre-teens bum a drag off a classmate's Camel?

The answer may come in the next couple of weeks, as Republicans try to wrestle the issue away from Clinton and the throngs of tobacco-free teens he has paraded through White House ceremonies.


House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced Thursday House Republicans will reveal their own anti-smoking bill as early as next week.

"I believe the country will respond strongly to a focused, targeted anti-teen smoking bill within the context of fighting the war on drugs, and saving our children," Gingrich told CNN.

On Friday, Gingrich kicked off the next battle in the war to win the public's perception over who owns the tobacco issue. Surrounded by his own group of children outside the U.S. Capitol, Gingrich launched his assault on the president's position.

"Mr. President, on behalf of all these young people, don't turn your back on the young people of America, don't turn your back on the next generation," Gingrich said. "Join us both in waging the war on drugs and in passing an effective teen smoking bill. We think that's what's best for the whole country."

Is some teen smoking initiative better than none? Perhaps what hangs in the balance is not only the health of American teens but the difference between a lame-duck president or a former speaker of the House.

In Other News

Friday, June 19, 1998

First Lewinsky Lawyer: Monica Didn't Tell All
Members Named To Committee To Investigate China Missile Deal
Turnout Low In State Primaries So Far

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