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Lengthy Tobacco Deal Review Promised

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With health authorities questioning key provisions of last week’s agreement to impose new controls on tobacco, President Clinton and congressional leaders said Sunday that the pact will undergo a lengthy review--and possible revisions--before receiving final approval.

The president suggested that the proposed tobacco settlement could serve as a step toward a final agreement, once reviews are completed by the White House and other interested parties.

“I don’t think any of us--at least I hope none of us--are reviewing it with the view toward either saying we’re going to embrace it or kill it, and there’s no other option,” Clinton told reporters at the conclusion of an eight-nation summit in Denver.

Several lawmakers and health experts, meanwhile, raised concerns that the settlement may represent a sweetheart deal for cigarette manufacturers and could impede the ability of the Food and Drug Administration to regulate nicotine levels.

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Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento) said Congress is likely to revise the accord before approving it. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) suggested that as many as 10 congressional committees will be involved in reviewing the agreement.

“So it is not going to be an easy thing, no matter what you do,” said Hatch, who appeared on the same program as Fazio.

The agreement, unveiled Friday after weeks of negotiations between a group of 40 state attorneys general and the tobacco industry, calls for tobacco firms to pay $368.5 billion over 25 years to settle pending litigation.

Much of the money would go to the states to reimburse tobacco-related health care costs and to finance anti-smoking campaigns and other health programs, including a plan to reduce teenage smoking. The industry also agreed to cease all outdoor advertising and issue significantly larger and more serious warning labels on its products.

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In exchange for these and other concessions, the industry would no longer face 40 pending lawsuits seeking recovery of billions of dollars of health care costs incurred by states, as well as 20 large class-action suits.

Because the agreement would bar future lawsuits against the industry, it requires the approval of Congress and the president.

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Members of Congress and public health advocates have cited several potential problems with the agreement. These include a lack of severe economic penalties if the industry fails to significantly reduce smoking habits among American children and the possibility that the settlement could provide a windfall for trial lawyers. Moreover, the proposal would permit cigarette manufacturers to deduct the billions of dollars in payments as business expenses, which means taxpayers would pick up part of the tab.

Clinton made it clear that the agreement’s fine print relating to federal regulatory authority over nicotine will be a prime concern at the White House as officials assess the proposed deal.

“That will particularly bear on the specific language relating to the jurisdiction of the federal Food and Drug Administration, and exactly what it means,” Clinton said.

The “bottom line for me” he said, is to make sure that the deal doesn’t “compromise or undermine our obligation” to protect public health, and the health of children in particular.

“I know that we’re all in a hurry to sort of rush to judgment on this, and I understand that, but that’s why we need to take the time to really analyze it and make sure there’s not something there that would have an unintended consequence,” Clinton said.

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Participants in the negotiations said they remained confident that the agreement will receive congressional and White House approval.

“I think this comprehensive plan is going to be judged based on what it does for the children of this country and what it does for the public health of this country,” said Mississippi Atty. Gen. Michael Moore on the Fox program. “And if that’s the measure, then I know we’ll be successful.”

The settlement is not expected to reach the floors of the House or Senate until this fall at the earliest, congressional leaders said.

Fazio said he anticipates changes will be made to meet public demands that children’s access to cigarettes is eliminated.

“And if it’s seen in any sense as inadequate in that regard, Congress may wish to reenter the debate,” Fazio said.

Bunting reported from Washington and Peterson from Denver.


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