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The Senate’s tobacco madness

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The more the Senate wrestled over tobacco legislation this week, the more difficult it was to tell the good guys from the bad. Rather than fall all over each other in a race to see who could be toughest on an evil industry, then ending up with nothing, senators instead ought to have reverted to the settlement terms the states negotiated with cigarette companies in the first place.

That should be the next step following Wednesday's defeat of a bill that bore little resemblance to that agreement. Frankly, the amendments being debated in Washington this week appeared to have little to do with the most important issue at hand, which ought to be discouraging young people from smoking. Instead, they seem more geared toward election-year sloganeering.Unfortunately, rather than a bill that ratifies hard work by several state attorneys general, the American people now are left with nothing. Unless someone can revive the process, the tobacco industry will be free to go about its deadly business.

And public cynicism will continue to grow. While special interest groups have been known to use underhanded tactics to further their causes, a press conference this week by a coalition of such groups rang all too true. As was noted, many of the senators debating this issue have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from tobacco over the years. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott alone has pocketed $101,250 over the past 11 years.

Facts like that make every turn of the screw worthy of suspicion.

The original settlement called for $368 billion in fines against the industry over 25 years, as well as strong advertising restrictions and a provision that allows the Food and Drug Administration to begin regulating nicotine as a controlled substance after a few years. Now, in the latest versions, the fine has risen to $516 billion, a tax of $1.10 per pack of cigarettes would be used to reduce taxes elsewhere in the budget and an argument has ensued over whether to limit the fees charged by attorneys who worked on the bill. Some of them are reportedly set to reap what amounts to $92,000 per hour for their contributions.

Not surprisingly, the tobacco industry has backed out of the settlement agreement and has launched a nationwide campaign of misleading and insulting commercials, further confusing the issue.

This didn't have to be get complicated. Forty states, including Utah, were in on the original settlement. They, not Congress, were the first to scare tobacco sufficiently that it agreed to harsh terms. All Congress had to do was give its stamp of approval on what was a heroic accomplishment.

Unfortunately, that appears to have been too much to ask.