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Jackhammer on Tobacco Road

Clinton's civil suit against the industry has potholes

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The Clinton administration has finally acted to force the tobacco industry to shoulder more of the health burden caused by its products. It also wants to prod the industry to stop opposing government efforts to regulate nicotine as a drug. Those are laudable ends.

But the Clinton Justice Department's method - a lawsuit against the industry that's fraught with legal questions and political motives - is suspect. It may not stand up in court.

First, consider the basis for this suit - that the tobacco companies hoodwinked the public and the government for decades, colluding to withhold information that would have reduced its negative impact.

There's no question the industry did what it could to downplay tobacco's harm. But it will argue that the government was by no means ignorant - after all, it instituted warnings on cigarette packs in the 1960s.

The government, moreover, was promoting tobacco, supporting prices to tobacco farmers, and encouraging tobacco exports. Most notably, it was happily taking in billions of dollars in excise taxes on cigarettes.

Would official policy toward tobacco have changed if all the scientific research results that the companies had about their products had become public decades ago - particularly the addictive nature of nicotine?

In court, the government will argue that tobacco executives, better than anyone else, understood nearly a half century ago that nicotine was powerfully addictive. They'll contend the executives hid that fact in collusion, and thus became virtual drug dealers, peddling their wares, even to children, under the guise of a legal product.

That charge of industrywide fraud is one reason the Justice Department took the unusual step of using anti-racketeering laws - normally used against the mob - in this case. (Such laws also allow for triple damages, which would get the government more money for health programs.)

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