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Tobacco smoke signals $300 billion deal?: Goals should be relief for ailing smokers and curbs on appeals to youth.


FROM THE tobacco companies' standpoint, settling litigation filed against them by states and individuals is an economic imperative -- even if it costs $300 billion or more. But a settlement is an even more urgent imperative for public officials intent on gaining monetary relief for smokers whose health has been damaged by tobacco as well as curbing youth smoking.

Negotiations under way between the largest tobacco giants and state attorneys general could lead to a proposed settlement that would put an end to tens of thousands of lawsuits. It would need congressional approval, though, and that could be a difficult task.

The proposal would involve payouts from tobacco firms of at least $300 billion over two or three decades in exchange for federal protection against lawsuits. In addition, the tobacco companies would be sharply restricted on their advertising and marketing. Say goodbye to the Marlboro Man on billboards and Joe Camel ads aimed at kids. Cigarette vending machines could be a thing of the past, too.

No settlement will totally please the anti-smoking zealots -- short of putting all tobacco companies out of business. That won't happen. But the current negotiations raise a distinct possibility that dramatic progress can be made to sharply reduce the number of new smokers and compensate ailing smokers.

Tobacco use is addictive. It also is costing this country an estimated $100 billion a year in direct and indirect health expenses. Yet there is no way to bar cigarettes completely. Prohibition didn't work for alcohol; tobacco products would fare even worse.

State and federal officials have an obligation, though, to protect the public's health. That means compensation for smokers whose lungs and life span have been harmed by tobacco and compensation for states for treating smoking-related illnesses.

It also means a crackdown on industry efforts to entice youngsters into trying tobacco products. A negotiated settlement could eliminate much of this subliminal advertising and marketing and produce funds to discourage teen-agers from getting hooked on cigarettes.

There is no longer any doubt of the dangers of cigarette smoking. Youngsters, in particular, need protection. Those with serious smoking-related illnesses deserve recompense. But there are millions of mature adults who have made a conscious decision to take the risk and puff away. We cannot legislate them out of existence. Any settlement should aim to reduce the number of new smokers and establish a trust fund large enough to help those already injured by smoking.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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