CLINTON: Tells AGs Bipartisan Legislation Is ‘Good’
President Clinton yesterday "gave his blessing" to a bipartisan tobacco settlement bill newly introduced in the Senate, the AP/Philadelphia Inquirer reports (Kellman, 3/13). Speaking to the National Association of Attorneys General, Clinton said the bill introduced by Sens. John Chafee (R-RI), Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Bob Graham (D-FL) "is a good, tough bill. I hope it gets wide support" (transcript, 3/12). Clinton also "praised" the attorneys general for their effort in reaching the $368.5 billion global agreement (AP/Inquirer, 3/13). "Be proud of what you have done, but bring all your influence to bear on the Congress," he urged (transcript, 3/12). CongressDaily reports that "Clinton also sought to play down divisions within Congress and between himself and GOP congressional leaders over how to spend the proceeds from the settlement (3/12). "[T]his is not about money, it's not about the size of the prize we can extract from the tobacco industry, it is about fulfilling our responsibilities to our children -- as parents, as a government, as a nation" (transcript, 3/12).
The Heat Is On
The New York Times reports that Clinton, "who sees a political bonanza for Democrats on the tobacco issue, has spoken out on it every day this week." But in his speech yesterday, the president "remained vague about what is politically the touchiest issue involved" -- legal immunity for cigarette makers (Rosenbaum, 3/13). "A lot of people are having trouble with how you work out the future liability of the tobacco companies, and how much to give up in return for the advertising fix that we want, which otherwise may not prevail in the courts. You know, there are all these questions out there," Clinton said (transcript, 3/12). "This deliberate avoidance of a central issue," the New York Times reports, "infuriates Republicans, who believe the president is setting them up politically." If they "stick their necks out" to support industry protections, they "fear" Clinton will say they are "caving in" to Big Tobacco. But, if they do not support protections, the Republicans believe it will be close to impossible to pass legislation, leaving them open to the president's criticism that they are to blame for the "failure" (3/13).
The Los Angeles Times reports that the new "bipartisan proposal ... seeks a middle ground between curtailing the right to sue cigarette manufacturers and allowing unlimited damage awards" (Peterson/Rubin, 3/13). But the tobacco industry called the bill "punitive and patently unconstitutional." The Dallas Morning News reports that tobacco spokesperson Steve Duchesne said the Chafee-Harkin-Graham measure "seems designed not to resolve the outstanding issues surrounding tobacco but to punish and even destroy the industry" (Rodrigue, 3/13). Public health groups praised the proposal. The Wall Street Journal reports that former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and former FDA Commissioner David Kessler "endorsed the measure 'with the exception of the concept of liability caps.'" The two public health leaders said in a letter that the bill "would significantly reduce tobacco use and fundamentally alter the way America deals with tobacco" (Taylor/Calmes, 3/13).
The bipartisan legislation "denies tobacco firms many legal protections and boosts their costs by at least two-thirds," the Dallas Morning News reports. While the bill would raise the price of cigarette packs by $1.50 over two years and penalize tobacco firms if they fail to reduce youth smoking rates, the most contentious element is the measure's $8 billion cap on Big Tobacco's legal payouts. As cosponsor Graham explained on PBS' "NewsHour," the cap would mean that "for the duration of this agreement the tobacco industry must contribute $4 billion into a fund which would be used to pay off settlements that were reached for past or future tobacco-related diseases and injuries." If, during any given year, the lawsuit totals were more than $4 billion, there would be an additional $4 billion available. Graham said, "We believe that this is a fair provision. It does not give the tobacco industry any barriers to being sued in a class action format, or for punitive damages" (3/12). In an interview this morning, Chafee said, "We think it's a fair thing that we have, this so-called cap on what the damages, on what they'll have to pay out in a single year." If the amount that tobacco companies are being sued for exceeds $8 billion in a given year, that amount will come out of the next year's $8 billion allotment, Chafee explained ("Morning Edition," NPR, 3/13). "Our plan will be a very, very bitter pill for the industry. No doubt they will criticize us. But in the end, I believe they are going to have to swallow it," said Harkin (Dallas Morning News, 3/13).