Bush May Block Anti-Smoking Efforts
WASHINGTON (AP) - Tobacco industry supporters are breathing easier now that President Bush is in office, while cigarette foes fear the new administration will move to block anti-smoking efforts.
Both groups are paying close attention to a Justice Department lawsuit against tobacco companies and to bills that would authorize the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco.
The Clinton administration filed suit in 1999 to try to recover the federal government's cost of treating sick smokers and to collect damages for profits allegedly earned through fraudulent practices. U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler threw out much of the case but ruled the government could seek damages and injunctive relief.
Many on Capitol Hill believe the case will fizzle under Bush.
``I don't think we're going to see a continuation of the suit from the Justice Department,'' said Rep. Ernie Fletcher, R-Ky., who represents a tobacco-growing district and opposes the lawsuit.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., a litigation supporter, said, ``I'm concerned that the new administration may abandon that suit or downgrade its commitment to it. What was said during the campaign didn't give you a lot of hope.''
Bush has not commented publicly on the lawsuit since taking office, but when asked about it during the campaign, he said, ``We've had enough lawsuits.''
The Clinton administration budgeted $23.2 million for the lawsuit this year. It obtained money to help pay for it from the departments of Defense, Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs, which incurred costs from treating sick smokers. Republicans failed to block the transfer of funds but believe they will not have to fight that battle again.
``I'm sure the new Justice Department won't rob Peter to pursue it,'' said Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky. ``I think this administration will allow no more lawsuits and will fund no more lawsuits.''
Attorney General John Ashcroft opposed the suit when he was a senator from Missouri, but he declined to comment when asked about it during his confirmation. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called Ashcroft's silence ``disappointing.''
Health groups say Ashcroft worries them. ``His record on tobacco in the Senate was one of the most recalcitrant,'' said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Ashcroft helped kill legislation three years ago that would have raised cigarette taxes and clarified FDA's authority to regulate nicotine, Myers said.
FDA asserted its jurisdiction over tobacco and sought to crack down on cigarette sales to minors in 1996, but the Supreme Court last year ruled the agency had overstepped its authority.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, introduced legislation Tuesday to codify the FDA's 1996 rule, and he has urged Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson to support it.
Thompson, criticized for his close ties to tobacco companies, said last week he would work aggressively to discourage smoking. His agency oversees the FDA.
A commission appointed by President Clinton released a report last month calling for FDA regulation. That report was sent to Bush.
Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., believes FDA oversight is needed to prevent companies from marketing to teen-agers, which he says continues despite a 1998 settlement between cigarette manufacturers and 46 states prohibiting the industry from doing that.
``The tobacco companies continue to peddle their wares to kids,'' Meehan added. ``I think we have to continue to fight.''
Even Philip Morris Inc., the nation's largest cigarette manufacturer, has said it would accept some FDA oversight to ``bring greater stability and predictability to our business.''
Lawmakers from Kentucky, the nation's leading producer of the burley tobacco, say Bush is unlikely to support strict FDA legislation.
``The FDA is going to keep its snoot off the farm and out of tobacco,'' said Bunning, who proposed a measure in 1995 to strip the FDA of all funding because of its efforts to regulate tobacco.
While campaigning, Bush said he would support giving the FDA ``the authority necessary to discourage teen-age smoking'' but did not provide details.
Health advocates say what's needed is broad regulation that also addresses adult addiction.
``We view that (Bush) statement as not particularly supportive of the kind of regulatory authority necessary to reduce the addiction, disease and death caused by tobacco,'' said American Lung Association lobbyist Paul Billings.
Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, who initiated the agency's 1996 crackdown, said no regulatory authority over tobacco would be better than weak oversight.
``Regulation could have the negative effect of giving it (tobacco) the stamp of government acceptability,'' Kessler said.
Bush received about $90,000 from tobacco companies during the campaign, compared with $8,000 that went to Al Gore, the Center for Responsive Politics says. The nonpartisan watchdog group says the tobacco industry gave about $8 million in the last election cycle, with 83 percent going to Republicans.