A bill that would force the tobacco industry to pay $506 billion over 25 years, plus billions of dollars in fines if teenage smoking rates do not decrease significantly was approved Wednesday by a Senate committee.
The bill won the endorsement from an overwhelming majority on the Senate Commerce Committee, clearing the first legislative hurdle on the road to what members of both parties and the White House are targeting as a new national policy on tobacco.Only Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., voted against it. Ashcroft said he objected to giving cigarette makers legal protections not accorded other companies. In return for curbing its own advertising, the tobacco industry would get protection from lawsuits in the form of a $6.5 billion annual limit on punitive damages.
White House spokesman Barry Toiv welcomed the committee's action but said the administration would pursue higher cigarette prices and tougher penalties for the tobacco industry.
"We believe that some significant changes are going to be needed, but it's a good start and represents progress," said Toiv.
Drafted primarily by the panel's chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the bill leaves the most contentious issues to be debated on the Senate floor or in negotiations with the White House.
Among them are how to spend the hundreds of billions of dollars to be paid by tobacco companies and details of payments to lawyers who negotiated last June's settlement between 40 states and cigarette makers. Nonetheless, McCain said, Senate leaders in both parties hope to hold a full Senate vote by June 1.
"There is no doubt that this is only the first round, and there are many rounds to fight," McCain said. "We have to keep some perspective."
Tobacco companies have threatened to walk away, taking with them the advertising curbs that constitutional experts say cannot be forced by Congress.
"Whether some up here like it or not, the tobacco companies are part of this process," said the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, where 50,000 tobacco farmers and workers produce a $1 billion industry. "Our goal should not be to lay waste to their balance sheets, for doing that would not allow us to move forward to improve the public health."