U.S. not doing enough, tobacco foes say
WASHINGTON - From time to time, President Bush urges Americans to quit smoking, but critics say his actions speak louder than his words.
Last week, the United States opposed the World Health Organization's first global anti-smoking pact that would require participating countries to ban all tobacco ads and sales to minors, put larger health warnings on packages and increase tobacco taxes.
That move came after Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson rejected a $2 increase in the 39-cent federal cigarette tax, an increase recommended by his own advisory panel.
Yet, eight months ago, Bush told a White House fitness forum: "Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death and disease in America."
Almost 5 million people worldwide die every year from smoking - including more than 400,000 Americans.
The president said, "Americans should be physically active every day," have "good eating habits" and "don't smoke."
Tobacco foes contend that Bush is Big Tobacco's biggest ally in years.
"The tobacco industry has a friend in the White House," said William Corr, executive vice president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
"The Bush administration has done nothing, absolutely nothing, that will address the [smoking] problem in this country," Corr added.
Administration officials argue that Bush, a jogger and fitness buff, and Thompson, who raised cigarette taxes four times when he was governor of Wisconsin, use their bully pulpits to educate Americans on the dangers of cigarettes.
"You will find no one more anti-smoking than the secretary," said Thompson spokesman Bill Pierce. "You cannot discount the bully pulpit."
The Bush administration is pushing ahead with a major federal lawsuit - launched under then-President Clinton - that accuses the tobacco industry of deceiving the public about the health risks of cigarettes and other tobacco products.
Meanwhile, the American health attache to the WHO talks, David Hohman, last week defended the U.S. objections to the pact, saying some of the measures were unconstitutional or too sweeping.
But health advocates, including the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association, contend that Bush is more interested in protecting the interests of the tobacco industry than public health.
The groups accused the administration of "persistent efforts to torpedo" key provisions in the WHO treaty, which almost 200 member countries will vote on later this year. The treaty would mostly affect developing nations, which have few, if any, marketing restrictions on cigarettes.
In nixing the idea of raising the national cigarette tax last month, Thompson told a congressional panel: "This administration does not raise taxes."
Health experts say a 10 percent increase in the price of a pack of cigarettes leads to a 4 percent drop in smoking.
Anti-smoking advocates also fear that the administration, which is pro-free trade, is bent on eliminating overseas tariffs on U.S. tobacco, which would be a boon for Philip Morris, the nation's largest exporter of cigarettes.
Last month, two leading tobacco foes in Congress, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., cited recent deals with Chile and South Korea to lower the import tariffs on U.S. cigarettes, which would make American cigarettes cheaper in those countries.
"Health concerns should take precedence over free-trade concerns," Waxman and Durbin said in a letter to Bush.
They also claimed the administration had opposed efforts in Congress to crack down on international cigarette smuggling and was ignoring a federal ban on helping U.S. tobacco companies market their products overseas.
Tobacco critics also blast the White House for failing to take a stand on legislation that would allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco and for failing to develop new programs to reduce smoking.
While they complain about the White House, tobacco foes are taking their fight to statehouses.
Although cigarette taxes in the tobacco states remain the lowest in the country - an average of 8.5 cents a pack, compared with the national average of 64 cents - several of the cash-strapped states are looking at smokers to help them raise money.
Tennessee raised its cigarette tax to 20 cents a pack last year, the first increase since 1990, and the West Virginia legislature last week voted to increase its 17-cents-a-pack tax to 55 cents.
Kentucky, whose 3-cent tax has stayed the same since 1970, is discussing a 44-cent increase (which would collect $5 million for every penny raised), and South Carolina is considering increasing its 7-cent tax.
Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner has floated the idea of raising the state's 2.5-cents-a-pack tax - the lowest in the country.
"It's a health win, and it's a fiscal win," said Trish Dever, regional director of the Southern Neighbors Collaborative, a new anti-smoking coalition in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
Some cities in tobacco country, including Lexington, Ky., and Charleston, S.C., are considering whether to ban smoking in public places such as restaurants and bars.
As for smoke-filled rooms, state lawmakers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia have all banned smoking in parts of their statehouses.