WARNING to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah: The former U.S. surgeon general has determined that your stand on tobacco reform is hazardous to the nation's health.
Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop attacked Thursday Hatch's arguments that top reform bills go too far and could bankrupt tobacco companies (losing money needed for anti-smoking and health programs) and create a black market for cigarettes.Koop issued the criticism at a press conference hosted by Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, who pushes one of the toughest reform bills in Congress. Hansen's bill is the only one that well-known tobacco-fighter Koop has endorsed, saying it protects the nation's health sufficiently.
It shows the tobacco fight has not only split Congress, it has split Utah's delegation down the middle. Reps. Merrill Cook and Chris Cannon, R-Utah, co-sponsor Hansen's tough bill, while Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, backs a moderate one by Hatch.
Hatch has called numerous hearings in his Senate Judiciary Committee in recent weeks to point out potential problems with bills that are tougher than an original proposal by states and the tobacco industry to settle suits.
Among Hatch's main arguments are that higher price increases that leading bills seek - of at least $1.10 to $1.50 a pack - are too much and could lead to a black market for tobacco, or even bankrupt cigarette companies.
"Absolutely not," Koop said Thursday, saying tobacco companies have found historically they can charge about anything they want for their product - and smokers will pay it.
"Tobacco bought in this country . . . is a very cheap bargain compared to what cigarettes cost in Europe. And yet no European tobacco company has ever gone out of business or declared bankruptcy because of prices," Koop said.
He added, "This is not something that's going to lead to a black market. We already have a very significant black market and a very significant problem of smuggling cigarettes."
Koop said that is caused by pirates wanting to take advantage of wide differences in state tobacco taxes, which he said range from $1 a pack in Alaska to 2 cents in Virginia. He said Hansen's bill would help smooth out differences in taxes nationwide, and reduce the temptation for black-market dealing.
Hatch has also argued that ad restrictions and other penalties in main reform bills are unconstitutional because they take away free speech and other rights that he says only tobacco companies themselves can surrender voluntarily.
So, Hatch has called for moderation in bills to re-attract support of the industry so it will sign consent orders to do away with such things as "Joe Camel" cartoon ads. Otherwise, Hatch said years of legal battles would prevent any quick ad bans.
But one of Hansen's main co-sponsors, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said at the press conference, "That's a bogus issue."
He said Hansen's bill would clearly give the Food and Drug Administration power to restrict ads, much like the FDA can do with ads for drugs.
"I don't think it's unconstitutional for the FDA to set up advertising restrictions in pursuance of its objective to stop the tobacco companies from getting kids to smoke," Waxman said.
The Senate is scheduled to begin debating tobacco reform next week. And Hansen said Thursday that House Speaker Newt Gingrich vowed to him also to have a vote on strong tobacco reform this year.
"In politics, timing is everything," Hansen said. "And this is the time for us to do this."
And about those who want less stringent reform - such as Hatch - Hansen said, "If they feel the heat, they'll probably see the light."