Senate negotiators agreed Sunday on tobacco legislation that would raise cigarette prices by $1.10 a pack over five years, but they did not settle the vexing issue of legal protections for tobacco companies.
A summary of the Senate Commerce Committee bill, obtained by Reuters, showed that public health advocates and the White House got much of what they wanted in terms of health provisions, including broad authority for the Food and Drug Administration to regulate nicotine and tobacco.But participants in the marathon talks have warned the whole deal could still collapse over the issue of legal protections for the tobacco industry.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican, has been negotiating intensively with Republicans and Democrats on his committee, public health advocates and the state attorneys general, who negotiated a settlement proposal with the industry last June 20.
McCain wants the panel to take up the bill Wednesday before Congress takes a two-week spring recess.
The panel has repeatedly been on the brink of an agreement, only to see if collapse over FDA authority or civil protections. On Sunday, with the Wednesday deadline looming, bill language was distributed to members, with the civil liability section omitted.
McCain said in a statement: "I'm very pleased to release this bipartisan legislation product that meets the primary goal of stopping 3,000 kids each day from starting this life-threatening addiction."
Bill Novelli, president of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, praised McCain's efforts and said he was optimistic about health provisions, although he could not make a final judgment until the whole bill was completed.
"McCain has put forth a tremendous effort," Novelli said. "While we haven't seen the entire bill, the public health provisions are very encouraging."
Although the civil liability talks were continuing, sources close to them said the proposal that has been on the table would ban class actions for past wrongdoing and limit industry liability in future cases to $6.5 billion a year.
If the industry fails to meet certain public health goals, including youth smoking reduction targets, it could lose that ceiling on liability until it gets back in compliance.
In addition, the bill calls for penalties of up to $3.5 billion a year if the industry misses youth smoking reduction targets. The goal is to bring down youth smoking by 15 percent in three years and by 60 percent in 10 years.
Those liability provisions and penalties would give tobacco companies less protection than they sought in a June 20 deal negotiated with state attorneys general suing them. But it gives them more protection than most public health advocates are comfortable with.
The McCain bill would force up cigarette prices by $1.10 a pack over five years, starting with a 65-cent hike in 1999. It calls the payments a per pack licensing fee. President Clinton in his proposed 1999 budget also called for a $1.10 price increase over five years.
The bill does not spell out how the money should be spent, leaving that to the full Senate to decide, but says priorities should be smoking-related health programs.
The bill would also limit advertising and marketing, and call for more explicit health warnings on labels. It also includes some language, sought by Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and others, restricting marketing of tobacco products to underage smokers overseas.
It would set aside money for international anti-tobacco efforts.
McCain's bill estimates the industry would pay $92 billion over five years and roughly $500 billion over 25 years, depending on penalties and how much smoking drops off because of higher prices and new anti-smoking programs.