Tobacco talks continue on small details

WASHINGTON (AP) Tobacco foes pushed toward a multibillion-dollar settlement with cigarette makers Thursday, reaching “agreements on concepts” but struggling to pin down specifics that would govern the tobacco industry for the next quarter-century.
“Sometimes the most difficult details don’t arise until the last minute in negotiations, when somebody has to say yea or nay,” said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.
“We have made tremendous progress today,” said lead negotiator Michael Moore, Mississippi’s attorney general. “We got more concessions from the industry.”
But the attorneys general would not say if those concessions were on the vital two sticking points — whether the tobacco industry would be exempt from paying punitive damages to sick smokers and how much control over nicotine the Food and Drug Administration gets.
They don’t have a draft of terms yet, said New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco before negotiators reconvened meetings that they said would last late into the night and into Friday.
Another person close to the talks said the FDA terms were all but finalized, with an agreement that the agency could not ban nicotine for 12 years.
On Wall Street, tobacco stocks rose amid expectations of a settlement with Philip Morris, which stands to benefit most from the deal, closing up.
Tired anti-tobacco attorneys said they were energized by President Clinton’s comments in an interview, encouraging them to keep working.
“They need to … try to resolve this and bring us all something which we can evaluate,” Clinton told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published Thursday. “Then, if I think it should be modified in some way, I could tell them I thought it should be modified.”
Even if a deal were reached that Clinton ultimately endorses, Congress still would have to ratify it before it would take effect, and that is far from certain.
The Senate is “locked out pretty much until September” from acting on tobacco legislation, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi told The Associated Press. And some Democrats, including key Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, told tobacco negotiators just this week that they remain highly skeptical.
Nevertheless, White House aide Bruce Lindsey, who normally travels with the president, stayed behind Thursday as Clinton left for a Denver summit to meet with Moore and other negotiators as the deal firmed.
The deal would settle 40 state lawsuits that seek to recover Medicaid money spent treating sick smokers and 17 class-action lawsuits against the industry.
In return for strict advertising and other curbs, tobacco companies would not have to pay more than $4 billion a year in compensatory damages to sick smokers, or ever again face class-action suits.
But the industry also wanted to avoid ever having to pay punitive damages to a sick smoker who won a lawsuit. The compromise that negotiators signaled they will accept would have the industry pay for “past misconduct” as a lump sum payment that is part of the settlement. Then the industry would only be liable for punitive damages in any future legal action.
The question was how much money. One person familiar with the talks said the tab now stood at $308 billion, for state Medicaid reimbursement and to fund such deal requirements as anti-smoking education.