The stance seems strange for someone who has preached against the use of tobacco all his life.
But Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, complained Thursday that too many in Congress are now actually being too tough on the tobacco industry.He says that forced the industry to pull support from tobacco reform bills - including its willingness to voluntarily waive some free-speech rights. Without that, Hatch says it may be impossible to limit advertising and marketing as desired.
"We would be better off working with the industry to curtail advertising and promotion practices beyond which the Constitution would allow us to legislate," Hatch told the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.
Hatch even openly worried that current bills would raise tobacco prices so high that it could launch a thriving black market for cigarette smugglers - though experts are divided on whether that would be a problem.
Hatch complained that Congress has lost sight of its original objective to help settle lawsuits against tobacco companies by states "through a constitutional package of reforms, which relies on a guaranteed stream of revenue from tobacco companies."
He said, "Unfortunately, partisan politics, fear, greed and Washington's pile-on mentality have caused us to lose sight of this objective.
"Instead, we are simply trying to `out-tobacco' one another. If that continues, the public interest will not be served, and Big Tobacco will win."
The tobacco industry pulled support from a Senate reform bill after the Commerce Committee, at the urging of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., made it tougher than original settlement proposals. The major House bill, which Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, plans to introduce, would be even tougher and impose higher taxes.
Hatch said such bills could bankrupt U.S. tobacco industries or send them overseas.
"If we bankrupt the companies or if we drive them offshore, ultimately no one wins. Because we need the industry payments to fund the massive anti-tobacco program . . . without the funding source, the whole program goes down the drain," Hatch said.
"It would be more intellectually honest just to ban tobacco," said Hatch, a nonsmoker and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which preaches abstinence.
Hatch also said some state attorneys general wrote him worrying that drastically higher cigarette prices that would come from some bills "will inevitably lead to the creation of a massive black market, giving organized crime a new line of business."
He added, "A large lucrative black market could have the unintended consequences of making parents' jobs harder. It is not too hard to envision unregulated cigarettes being sold on literally every street corner."
But Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee's ranking Democrat said such talk about black markets comes mostly from tobacco companies - and he doesn't trust them.
"The same tobacco industry that assured us under oath that nicotine is not addictive now claims that higher tobacco prices will create a flood of contraband products," he said.
Washington State Attorney General John Hough testified that $1 billion worth of cigarettes per year are already smuggled into the United States, mostly from Mexico and China, to escape taxes.
Ron J. Martelle, former mayor of the border town of Cornwall, Ontario, said when Canada drastically raised prices of its tobacco, black market smuggling of cigarettes through his town zoomed - and brought constant shootings, murders and violence.
He said when Canada later dropped its high taxes, "the smuggling of tobacco through the Cornwall area stopped almost overnight. The community began to return to its tranquil ways."
But Treasury Deputy Secretary Lawrence Summers says it is unlikely the United States would have the same problems as Canada because most of its population is far from borders and because every step of cigarette production and sales is licensed and regulated - making it hard for large-scale distribution outside the system.