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As brand new chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Sam Gibbons of Florida made one of his first major decisions this week. Unhappily, it's a major blunder, a triumph of unnecessary expediency over common sense. Either Gibbons must develop the statesmanship required to put the national interest ahead of influential special interests or the committee should start looking for a new chairman.

We're referring to Gibbons' decision to push for a significantly smaller cigarette tax hike as a means of helping to finance health-care reform. It's a move that flies in the face of the anti-tobacco mood on Capitol Hill and around the country. Indeed, it also flies in the face of Gibbons' own record as an opponent of the tobacco industry.On the grounds that the votes of tobacco-state lawmakers are essential to passage of health-care reforms, Gibbons is pushing for a tobacco tax hike of only 60 cents.

What short-sighted folly!

That amount is less than half the $1.25-a-pack increase passed last March by a House subcommittee. It's also smaller than President Clinton's call for a 75 cent hike. While the Clinton tax hike would go into full effect a year after it was passed, Gibbons' hike would be phased in over six years.

The Gibbons plan ignores polls showing a strong majority of Americans, including even those in tobacco-growing states, support a major increase in tobacco taxes as long as the revenue is earmarked for health care.

It ignores official estimates that by deterring smoking a 75 cent increase would save 900,000 lives while a $2 increase would save nearly 2 million lives.

And it ignores the fact that nine European nations tax cigarettes by between $1 and $3 a pack, while Denmark and Norway impose taxes of over $3.

Yes, after Canada imposed a stiff tax increase on tobacco, Canadians started smuggling cigarettes from the United States and the Canadian government had to roll back the tax hike part way. But the problem would not have arisen if cheaper cigarettes had not been available across the open border with the United States.

At this point, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee seems not to have done his homework. Gibbons clearly needs to go back to school on the tobacco tax hike and focus particularly closely on the impact it could have on the 400,000 Americans a year now killed by smoking.