Tobacco giants in the US kill off bill

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The Independent Online
THE TOBACCO industry has won its fight to destroy legislation in the United States Congress that would have raised cigarette prices and regulated their sale. After millions of dollars were pumped into the fight against the bill, Republicans killed it off in key procedural votes on Wednesday night.

But President Bill Clinton signalled that the Democrats would use the issue in this year's congressional elections. "I want the tobacco lobby, and its allies on Capitol Hill, to know that from my point of view this battle is far from over," Mr Clinton said.

Would there, he was asked, be any political consequences? "I certainly hope there will be, and there should be," the President replied.

Under the bill, cigarette prices would have risen by $1.10 (66p) a packet, which it was estimated would slash the number of teenage smokers. That was always a slightly dubious proposition: it would have raised the price of a pack of cigarettes in Washington, for instance, to roughly $3.75 (about pounds 2.25), or two-thirds the price of cigarettes in Britain, where teenage smoking is still a big problem. But it would also have allowed the US authorities to regulate tobacco as a drug, and restrict tobacco advertising.

The vote is a great disappointment for the President, who had backed the bill, and for Senator John McCain, a Republican of Arizona, the sponsor of the bill. But the measure had faced considerable opposition from the tobacco industry, which had wanted a much toned-down piece of legislation.

The US turned to Congress as part of a deal between the states and manufacturers whereby the legal liabilities of the tobacco industry would be limited if they accepted regulation and a price rise. The bill that emerged came as a nasty surprise to the manufacturers, and they set out to kill it.

As well as as launching a $40m (pounds 24m) advertising campaign, the tobacco industry has turned on the taps for members of Congress. It has given about $12m to the Republicans since they took over Congress in 1994, according to the Center for Responsive Politics; it gave under $2m to the Democrats.

Public Citizen, another independent think-tank, found that the 34 senators who voted most of the time in favour of tobacco interests received seven times as much money from the industry as the senators who usually voted in favour of the legislation. As ever in politics, money counts.

The Republicans had painted the bill - which would have cost the industry $516bn over five years - as simply a piece of taxation that would have hit cigarette smokers, and especially the poor. They had also objected to the potential gains for lawyers, not something that usually bothers Congress.

The response from the President and the Democrats makes it clear that they will use this to portray the Republicans as corrupt and sleazy, putting the interests of the tobacco industry above those of children.

The story is by no means over. There is a possibility that another tobacco bill will be put together, although its chances look slim.

If legislation to cap the liability of the industry is not passed, then the problem may simply shift back to the courts, which have handed out multi-million dollar packages against the cigarette manufacturers.