A Showdown With The Marlboro Man

NOT LONG AGO I ASKED A TOBACCOcompany executive to explain the industry's strategy in its long, drawn-out battle over cigarettes, chewing tobacco and health. "The object, for the companies," he answered, "is not to win. The object is to lose very slowly, to delay the day of reckoning as long as possible."

That day is coming soon. The fight is taking place in several forums. Recently, state attorneys general met to review tactics for suing the companies. Nine states have sued, two dozen more are considering doing so. But the next big showdown comes this summer, when the Clinton administration unveils details of an FDA proposal to regulate tobacco for the first time. FDA Commissioner David Kessler has put together a proposal that is a politician's dream-aimed at keeping kids from lighting up, while leaving smokers alone.

The proposal sounds limited but has real teeth. Besides making it illegal to sell cigarettes to children, it would ban cigarette vending machines as well as tobacco-related gifts like T shirts and caps directed at children. It would also require the industry to put up $150 million per year to advertise the risks of smoking. (Last week Clinton took his opening shot when he attacked advertising to children during a campaign speech.)

Most important, the Clinton plan contains a strong bottom line: if these tactics don't reduce by half the number ofteens using tobacco over the first seven years of the program, the agency is required to get tougher until something works. This is the most disturbing part to the tobacco industry: once the FDA has official jurisdiction, it can keep working on the regulations until the intended effects are achieved.

How will the Clinton administration and Kessler pull this off? It's not as difficult as the public has been led to believe. The new regulations do not require the FDA to mount a broad campaign to push them through Congress, like health-care reform. The rules, once courts approve the FDA's right to regulate the tobacco industry, take effect immediately.

The industry's allies in Congress could write a bill to block the FDA, of course. But that's a messy public process if it's an election year. To be sure, the industry has had a terrific track record in Congress. Large contributions to key congressional floor leaders and committee chairmen, both Democratic and Republican, keep anti-tobacco bills from emerging from committees and coming to the floor. But the industry's batting average drops sharply when anti-tobacco bills manage to make it out of the congressional panels. For example, the first ban on smoking aboard airplanes slipped through a procedural loophole, made it to the floor and won. Even those who have benefited from tobacco dollars have felt, in the harsh spotlight of a floor vote, obliged to side against the industry. Polls across the country show that voters dislike tobacco companies, want more regulation and specifically want some protection for their kids. Even in tobacco country, these numbers are often above 60 percent.

If and when a bill opposing the FDA's plan arrives on the floor for a final vote, the moment will be highly charged and visible. It is expected that folks like Rep. Tom Bliley, a Republican of Virginia and chairman of the House Commerce Committee, will oppose the FDA. He's long had a Philip Morris plant in his district and has taken more than $100,000 in contributions from the industry over the past 10 years. But what about progressive Democrats? For example, more than $50,000 each has gone to moderates Rep. Dick Gephardt and Rep. David Bonior. Will they engage in an open battle on the side of the tobacco industry?

Whatever the outcome, don't expect clear winners and losers once the smoke clears. If both sides hold their own, there will be some court losses, a few settlements and some new federal rules. The anti-smoking forces will get some of what they want: serious regulation for the first time and fewer children who smoke. What would the tobacco industry get? New regulations would help the industry release a new batch of "safer" cigarettes, which could revive the market for adult smokers. It is possible that the tobacco wars will yield a victory for both sides.