Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Congress Wrestles with Divvying Up Any Tobacco Windfall Senate Modifies Antismoking Package; Proponents Say It Will Still Keep Youths from Lighting Up

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Congress Wrestles with Divvying Up Any Tobacco Windfall Senate Modifies Antismoking Package; Proponents Say It Will Still Keep Youths from Lighting Up

Article excerpt

The Senate plunged into a heated debate over tobacco control this week, taking up a $516 billion piece of legislation with profound implications for the US cigarette industry, tobacco farmers, and the American laissez-faire culture of smoking.

The historic bill marks a rare political moment in which the strength of public opinion - in this case against cigarettemakers - is pushing Congress to defy one of the country's oldest and most powerful special interests: the tobacco lobby.

It also represents a sweeping new regulatory experiment, comparable to the auto safety laws of the 1960s, in which the government would take on an aggressively activist role in an attempt to dramatically curb a growing social ill: smoking among teenagers. "The country is in the process of this massive, multi-front search for a new status quo {on smoking}," says Christopher Foreman, an expert in the politics of health and safety at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Yet uncertainty remained high this week over a vote on the bill, the "National Tobacco Policy and Youth Smoking Reduction Act" introduced by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona. Senators wrangled with a long string of amendments, including sensitive measures on subsidies for tobacco farmers, cigarette price increases, and liability for tobacco firms. Moreover, even if the bill passes in the Senate and goes to the House, a political free-for-all awaits over exactly how - and to what effect - the country would spend an estimated $65 billion in new revenues generated over five years from higher prices on tobacco products. A wide range of opinions exist - from Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate who seek to use the monies for tax relief, to a White House proposal to put some $7 billion toward child-care block grants to assist low-income families. However, analysts predict that antismoking advocacy groups backed by the public would likely prevail in earmarking the bulk of the funds for programs to mitigate and prevent the harmful and costly effects of tobacco use. The McCain bill essentially does this, channeling the funds over five years into these four broad categories: * Public health and education programs to help people quit smoking and discourage youths from starting (22 percent or $14.3 billon). * Health research, including on how to best prevent and treat smoking addiction (22 percent or $14.3 billion). * State governments (40 percent or $26 billion total, with half discretionary and half to be allocated among a "menu" of child and health-related priorities decided by the National Governors' Association). * Farmer and farming community assistance (16 percent or $10.4 billion). Under the bill, the funds would come from annual tobacco industry payments, the cost of which would be passed on to consumers in the form of an incremental, $1. …

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