Clinton Says 'Big Tobacco' Must Answer To Taxpayers
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Clinton said Wednesday that the U.S. Justice Department's lawsuit against major tobacco firms aims to make them ``answer to taxpayers'' after failed attempts at a negotiated deal.
``The tobacco companies should answer to the taxpayers for their actions. The taxpayers of our country should have their day in court,'' Clinton told reporters at the White House.
The Justice Department Wednesday filed a massive lawsuit that seeks to recover much of the $20 billion spent by the federal government every year on smoking-related illnesses.
The suit argues that tobacco companies hid their knowledge of smoking's health effects since the 1950s. Tobacco companies responded that the suit was a ``meritless'' political move.
Clinton, however, said the suit only came after the administration was unable to obtain Congressional legislation expanding on a $368.5 billion settlement to state lawsuits against the industry, struck in 1997.
``We've been out there on this issue a very long time,'' Clinton said. ``We did our best to work with them (tobacco companies) and with the Congress to resolve many of these matters legislatively, and they declined. And I believe this is the appropriate thing to do.''
The 1997 deal was scrapped and replaced in 1998 by a smaller, $206 billion settlement between states and the tobacco companies after the Senate killed a $500 billion tobacco bill that was more in line with administration aims but hotly opposed by the industry.
STRICTER TOBACCO REGULATIONS
Despite the suit, however, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said the administration had not given up pushing a reluctant Congress to pass stricter tobacco regulations and raise tobacco taxes.
``There are a variety of issues, both legislative, regulatory and judicial that are available to us, and we'll use all of them in a manner consistent with pursuing our public policy agenda,'' Lockhart said.
The White House has been urging Congress to use higher tobacco taxes to help meet budget targets without cutting programs or dipping into surplus Social Security revenues.
In his 2000 budget request, Clinton proposed a 55-cent per pack increase in the price of cigarettes, which would raise about $8 billion for health programs. He also sought $20 million to pay for the lawsuit.
``We're going to continue pushing ... for increasing the price of cigarettes as both a good and sound fiscal issue and also a public health issue,'' Lockhart said.
He said he was confident any future administration would continue to pursue the lawsuit after Clinton leaves office in January 2000.
``I can't imagine somebody in the middle of a case trying to withdraw,'' Lockhart said. ``I also equally can't imagine Congress trying to withhold funds on such an important public health issue.''