To have a national tobacco deal scuttled by wrangling and political maneuvering would be a shame, not to mention unwise.
Unfortunately, that may be closer to reality than the deal itself, based on actions over the weekend.Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle need to put aside political interests and come up with a compromise position that all can support. That will serve the best interests of the country and particularly teenagers, who are the big losers until a settlement is obtained.
The basic impediment to reaching agreement is how punitive the measure should be. Republicans, including those representing Utah, are all over the board on the issue. Sen. Orrin Hatch thinks a $516 billion measure by GOP Sen. John McCain that includes taxes and regulatory measures is excessive.
`You'll have bankruptcy, you'll have a black market, you'll have something that doesn't work," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday.
Hatch prefers his own $398 billion package that is much closer to the $368 billion settlement reached last June between the tobacco industry, state attorneys general and public health advocates.
Hatch's proposal, according to McCain, isn't realistic, which is why McCain drafted his. "There is not five votes for what Senator Hatch just asked for, and that was to go easier on the tobacco companies," McCain shot back on "Meet the Press."
And then there is Utah Congressman Jim Hansen, who feels that McCain's bill is too soft and as such plans to introduce his own bill in the House this week. It would raise taxes even higher than McCain's, impose penalties if youth smoking doesn't decrease, give the Food and Drug Administration more power to regulate tobacco and kill immunity from future lawsuits for cigarette makers.
To further confuse the issue House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., is now calling for a narrower bill that targets drug use as well as teen smoking. He has also voiced resistance to McCain's bill.
Democrats accuse Gingrich and other critics of McCain's bill of bowing to the tobacco industry, which has long favored Republicans in its campaign contributions.
In the end, as noted by Utah Attorney General Jan Graham, the children suffer. Finding something the tobacco companies can agree to, like they did with the original $368 billion states'-initiated proposal, makes sense because it imposes immediate restrictions on the regulation of tobacco sales and marketing, including bans on outdoor advertising and Internet promotions, store displays and vending machines.
Cigarette companies would pay for anti-tobacco advertising campaigns, fines would be imposed on the industry if youth smoking does not decrease significantly and other penalties and restrictions would be assessed.
That settlement is not perfect, but, Graham notes, it guarantees immediate implementation. "If Big Tobacco agrees then it starts tomorrow. To me I'll take that instead of a 10 to 15 year court challenge (if an agreement isn't reached)."
So will we.