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Senate Wrestles With Tobacco Bill

A sharply higher price tag and fewer legal protections for the tobacco industry are part of a draft summary of the Senate's key tobacco bill circulating on Capitol Hill.

But Senate negotiators were still far apart Friday on nicotine regulation, and planned to work through the weekend. Aides to the bill's sponsor, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, said the measure Congress' leading effort at national tobacco policy would die if not settled by early Monday.

Negotiators met again Friday to hammer out an agreement on how much authority to grant the Food and Drug Administration over nicotine regulation. A proposal submitted late Wednesday by the White House would grant the FDA far more authority than many Republicans want.

New fighting broke out among negotiators Friday over what kind of legal protection to grant tobacco companies.

The issue is central to the bill's prospects because tobacco companies oppose the version contained in the bill's draft and have said they will refuse to cooperate with the deal if it is passed into law. A senior aide who was in the room said the discussions turned into a shouting match and threatened the bill's survival.

According to a draft summary obtained by The Associated Press, the tobacco bill would:

Establish a trust fund fed by annual industry payments of $12 billion to begin with, increasing to a total of $506 billion over 25 years, far more than the $368 billion the industry and states agreed to in June.

Raise the price of cigarettes by $1.10 per pack by 2003, as President Clinton has suggested.

Sets reductions for youth cigarette smoking at 60 percent over 10 years, the same as the June settlement.

Limit the amount the industry must pay per year in punitive damages at $6.5 billion and allow claims above that amount to be paid in future years. The cap would be removed for companies that miss youth reduction targets by more than 20 points.

In such cases, the cap would be removed for five years or until reductions are met, whichever is later. Penalty payments would be non-tax deductible. Tobacco companies have strongly protested this proposal, demanding instead a ban on most kinds of lawsuits, particularly class actions.

Authorize smoking cessation and education programs.

Establish a three-member arbitration panel to settle attorney's fees.

Allow state and local governments to impose additional "tobacco product control measures."

Permit the industry a limited exemption to antitrust laws.

Establish a tobacco document depository, requiring the industry to file all depositions of corporate representatives and expert witnesses, court orders, documents released in certain recent lawsuits and health research documents.

Impose advertising restrictions on the industry, including no human or cartoon images, animal figures or color ads on the back cover of adult magazines. It would require blak and white text-only advertising, except in adult periodicals and venues.

The tobacco industry, which is not directly participating in the talks, has strongly protested the draft's provisions, arguing that the price tag would force it into bankruptcy. Representatives for the companies, joined by senators such as Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, say some of the advertising restrictions are probably unconstitutional.

Negotiators are racing to get the bill to a committee vote by the end of next week, when Congress recesses for Easter. If the bill is not approved by then, McCain has said, there won't be enough time for a vote of the full Senate by June 1, the deadline set by GOP leaders.

Long skeptical about the bill's chances, Senior Senate Republicans have crafted a more narrow back up plan that would raise cigarette prices and include money for anti-smoking advertising.

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