Tobacco Industry Arrays Lobbyist Army to Fight Threatened Taxes, Regulation

Article excerpt

THE latest smoke signals coming from Capitol Hill, the Clinton administration, and state governments are alarming America's hugely profitable tobacco industry.

Tobacco interests now are threatened on at least five fronts, including efforts by health reformers to slap taxes of up to $2 on every pack of cigarettes. Other federal officials talk of regulating tobacco as an addictive drug.

The growing political offensive against the industry could seriously threaten its domestic revenues. It also puts at risk what some 46 million Americans consider their right to light up their cigarettes, cigars, and pipes in public.

Hearings in the House, which have drawn extensive media coverage, resume today as critics in Congress try to ratchet up public pressure on lawmakers and government regulatory agencies.

Cigarette companies are fighting back with a legion of lobbyists and an expensive advertising campaign in leading newspapers. But spokesmen for the $50 billion industry agree they are under an unprecedented siege.

John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), predicts some of the earliest and most important antitobacco action will come from the states. ASH supports rules, such as those proposed in Maryland, which would prohibit smoking in virtually all work-places.

"We will almost certainly get {new regulations} from Maryland," Mr. Banzhaf predicts. "The only thing that could stop it would be a lawsuit, and there may be a delay for legislative review."

The courts are emerging as another critical battleground. On Monday, Mississippi filed a lawsuit demanding that tobacco companies pay the state for $200 million a year it spends on tobacco-related health care.

The suit, believed to be the first of its kind, named 13 tobacco firms, six tobacco wholesalers, several trade associations, and even public relations consultants who work with tobacco interests. Demands for action grow

These state actions come as the clamor grows in the nation's capital to attack tobacco interests from all sides - political, financial, regulatory, and legal. Democrats, who control both Congress and the White House for the first time since 1980, say this year's efforts could be decisive. Republicans, less-inclined toward regulation, are expected to make significant gains in this year's congressional elections, which would give them the power to block the antitobacco effort.

Thomas Lauria, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, says the most important issue currently before Congress is the 75 cent-per-pack excise tax proposed by President Clinton to help pay for health care reform. Other officials in Washington support an even larger tax, ranging up to $2 a pack. …