Candidates Hit Tobacco Road

US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales holds a news conference at the Department of Justice June 23, 2006 in Washington, DC.
Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla
March 21, 2000 - Tuesday's Supreme Court decision on tobacco gave two current presidential candidates and a former candidate a chance to tout some familiar ideas. The court found that the FDA doesn't have the authority to regulate tobacco. The decision, in effect, kicks the issue back to Congress, which has to decide whether to give the FDA that authority.

"Today's decision by the Supreme Court puts the issue back in Congress' court," Vice President Al Gore noted as he addressed a group gathered to discuss the 2000 US Census. Showing that he can cast almost every issue in a political light, Gore went on, "It is time for the Republican Congress and George W. Bush to show their independence from 'Big Tobacco' and do the right thing by passing legislation that has a bipartisan support base in the Congress."

Gore and his family have raised tobacco on their Tennessee farm, a fact that wanders in and out of the candidate's stump speeches, depending on where he is. But he has fairly steadfastly maintained the Clinton administration's hard line against tobacco companies.

Gore emphasized the addictive and deadly properties of tobacco, and parenthetically reminded his audience how important the next president will be in determining the Supreme Court's complexion. But he didn't criticize the Court's decision, instead saying the onus lies with Congress to find a way to regulate tobacco.

He preached about how the tobacco companies seek to make smoking attractive to children, and seized the opportunity presented by a crying baby in the room. "You don't need to take him out on my account," Gore said. "That's sort of background music for what I'm saying here."

Governor George W. Bush weighed in as well, with a written statement from his office in Austin, Texas. Touting his state's own anti-smoking laws as "some of the nation's toughest," he didn't refer directly to the Court's decision, but said that "decisions about tobacco regulation should be made by Congress and state legislatures."

Candidate-in-suspension John McCain, who has long railed against Big Tobacco, said he was "not surprised" by the ruling. As he concluded his first remarks on the Senate floor since returning to Washington, he told reporters, "I always had those constitutional concerns about the FDA's ability to do that, particularly without legislation." He noted that the tobacco bill he backed sought to give the FDA that authority. That bill failed, and McCain said he didn't see much hope for new legislation in Congress, thanks to the power of the tobacco companies.

"Having encountered the influence of special interests," McCain said, warming to his theme, "I have to tell you I'm not optimistic we'll be able to get (a bill passed) until we have campaign finance reform."