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TOBACCO CONCESSIONS? NO WAY

No one should be confused as to why tobacco giants Philip Morris and U.S. Tobacco Co. have offered seemingly generous concessions to Congress on advertising and sales.

They want to avoid strict regulation by the Food and Drug Administration, which as one industry official put it, "would be like having the Women's Christian Temperance Union regulate the liquor industry." Were that to happen, he said, "they'd want to kill it."The tobacco industry undoubtedly wants to distract the nation's attention from the truth, which is that its product is deadly. By some estimates, 1,160 people succumb each day to tobacco-related deaths. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention released a report last month showing that 87.9 percent of more than 10,000 nonsmokers tested showed a trace of exposure to tobacco smoke in their blood streams. The effects of this deadly product apparently are almost universal, adding fuel to the arguments that secondhand smoke is responsible for a variety of ailments in nonsmokers.

All of which makes concessions offered by Philip Morris and U.S. Tobacco as distasteful as the desperate bargaining attempts of a killer.

They signal something else, as well.

Both companies apparently understand that the tide of public opinion is turning against them. High-profile teams of lawyers in several states have filed class-action suits against the industry. One attempts to include all smokers nationwide who are addicted to cigarettes. Billboard companies are beginning to voluntarily ban tobacco ads, and several communities are passing ordinances aimed at curbing teen access to the product.

Congress ought not waste much time on the so-called concessions, which would do away with cigarette vending machines, restrict some forms of advertising and keep cigarette companies from paying to have their products used in movies or on television programs. No other tobacco companies have agreed to these terms, and they fall short of President Clinton's own plans to limit advertising and reduce underaged smoking.

Pressure is forcing the tobacco industry into a retreat, and that pressure ought to continue. No other product with a similar track record of death and disease could escape close federal regulation. Congress and the president should make sure future generations aren't exposed to this lethal habit.