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Senate Opens Tobacco Debate

The Senate plunged into a contentious election-year debate Monday over legislation to curtail teen smoking and subject the once-powerful tobacco industry to stringent new federal controls. The cost of cigarettes would rise by more than $1 a pack.

"It is illegal for children to purchase tobacco in every state in the country. And in every state ... tobacco companies have invested enormous sums of money and time to encourage widespread lawbreaking," charged Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chief architect of the bill.

"Now is the time to put an end to it."

Confronted by some critics who said his bill was too tough, and by others who said it wasn't tough enough, McCain outlined a series of changes that had been negotiated with the White House in an attempt to firm up support.

Among them was a provision to increase the yearly liability limit for tobacco manufacturers, as well as one to eliminate some of the federal advisory boards that had been envisioned earlier.

Senate Republican Whip Don Nickles, who opposes the measure, conceded it is likely to pass.

A lengthy debate seemed likely, though, with the threat of a filibuster clouding prospects for a final vote by week's end.

And even before McCain could deliver his opening remarks, some tobacco-state Democrats complained sharply about a last-minute change Republicans had inserted to phase out the 68-year-old federal tobacco price support program with affected farmers to be compensated by the government.

"The bipartisanship has ended," declared Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C.

"McCain's effort to build a bipartisan tobacco bill was nothing more than a plot to promote his presidential bid," said Hollings' spokesman, Mary Lane. "He traveled to South Carolina promising farmers protection and gave them nothing. He should be ashamed of his disingenuous behavior."

"This is a very difficult issue. It's an emotional issue. It's a big bill," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott told reporters earlier in the day.

On that there was no disagreement, but division was the rule on virtually every other issue involved in the far-reaching legislation.

Public health advocates said they would attempt to toughen the legislation that McCain brought to the Senate floor, in part by raising to $1.50 the bill's $1.10-a-pack increase in the price of cigarettes.

Conservative Republicans countered that they would try to make it less onerous while aiming to cut down on teen smoking.

"The tobacco legislation is nothing more than an excuse to raise taxes and expand government exactly the opposite of our mandate from the American people," charged Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., who is courting conservatives in the run-up to an expected campaign for the White House in 2000.

The White House held the proposed $1.50 tax at arms length, neither endorsing nor opposing it.

There were other controversis too numerous to count everything from proposals for limited liability for tobacco companies, to programs to help tobacco farmers, to limits on the fees that lawyers will receive for working on the lawsuits that several states have filed against cigarette-makers.

As drafted, the bill would give the Food and Drug Administration the ability to regulate nicotine and impose a series of restrictions in tobacco industry advertising. Companies would be expected to meet specific targets to reduce teen smoking, and required to pay a maximum of $3.5 billion annually if the goals aren't met.

Those costs would be on top of the fee of $1.10 per pack of cigarettes contained in McCain's legislation.

Over 25 years, total industry payments to the government would be expected to total at least $516 billion. The government would use the money for such tobacco-related programs as health research, reimbursement for health care costs to states and payments to farmers.

Tobacco industry civil liability would be limited to $8 billion annually under the revised bill. But unlike the June settlement agreed to by the industry, cigarette-makers wouldn't receive additional protection from class-action lawsuits and they could be sued for past and future conduct.

Written by David Espo ©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed