EXCUSE the obvious glee on the faces of congressional Democrats. Senate Republicans had just gift-wrapped an ideal campaign issue by killing landmark anti-smoking legislation that had won wide public support.
This was a major, self-inflicted wound. Republicans knuckled under to pressure from the tobacco industry and the prospect of tens of millions of dollars in campaign funds from tobacco firms. That kind of special-interest dealing tends to infuriate voters.
Democrats and President Clinton had been the most fervent champions of the anti-smoking bill in an attempt to stem teen-age tobacco use. But Republicans succeeded in attaching enough objectionable amendments that the bill could not muster the required 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.
Republicans tried to portray the bill as simply another tax increase and unnecessary government interference in people's lives. That was the tobacco lobby's pitch. It may have worked with enough Republican senators, but it is unlikely to fare well under harsh Democratic attacks in the fall elections.
Still, 14 Republicans spoke in favor of this legislation. Deserving high praise is Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the bill's chief sponsor. "This bill is not about taxes," he said. "It's about whether we're going to allow the death march of 418,000 Americans a year who die early from tobacco-related disease and do nothing."
His courageous effort could help immensely if he is a presidential candidate in the next two years.
For the tobacco industry, this looks like a Pyrrhic victory. True, there will be no congressional crackdown, no $561 billion levy on manufacturers of cigarettes, no $1.10 rise in the federal tax on a pack of cigarettes.
But it also means tobacco companies will face an unending barrage of liability litigation and lawsuits filed by 17 states. (Maryland's trial date is set for April 5, 1999.) In addition, state legislatures could take the lead in imposing higher cigarette taxes. Vocal efforts to curtail youngsters' access to cigarettes will increase, too. Instead of defending themselves just in Washington, tobacco companies could face battles in 50 state capitals for decades.
That, in the end, could prove the tobacco industry's undoing.
Pub Date: 6/21/98