$246b tobacco windfall sets stage for legislative clashes
Meehan bill includes provision for prevention of smoking

By Bob Hohler, Boston Globe Staff, 03/09/99

WASHINGTON - A new battle in the tobacco wars breaks out in Congress today, as lawmakers escalate a struggle over how much the federal government should control the $246 billion settlement between cigarette makers and the states.

Firing one of the first volleys, Representative Martin T. Meehan, a Lowell Democrat, said yesterday that he will join a House Republican in filing legislation today that would require the states to spend 25 percent of the settlement, or more than $60 billion over the next 25 years, on tobacco prevention programs. Governors and state lawmakers across the country are planning to spend the windfall on a range of projects, from prison construction in Alabama to sidewalk repairs in California to tax cuts in Wisconsin.

The governors and many members of Congress want the federal government to waive all claims to the tobacco settlement, which effectively reimburses billions of Medicaid dollars that have been spent treating smoking-related illnesses.

But President Clinton, noting that the federal government covers more than 50 percent of Medicaid costs, has proposed a budget that assumes Washington will receive nearly $19 billion over the next four years from the tobacco settlement.

Seeking a middle ground, Meehan and his GOP cosponsor, Representative James V. Hansen of Utah, have joined antitobacco activists in pressing for the federal government to waive all claims to the settlement money on the condition that 25 percent is earmarked for curbing tobacco-related diseases.

Meehan and Hansen, as chairmen of the Congressional Task Force on Tobacco and Health, are key players in the long battle between the Congress and the cigarette industry. Their bill is expected to gain prominence over similar legislation filed recently by Representative Robert A. Weygand, a Rhode Island Democrat.

''I am very concerned that states are viewing the settlement as a general revenue windfall rather than a historic opportunity to reduce youth tobacco use,'' Meehan said. ''This shouldn't be about building roads or prisons.''

The Meehan-Hansen initiative clashes with legislation filed in the House and Senate that would waive all federal claims to the tobacco money on the grounds that the states successfully negotiated the settlement with the cigarette industry last year after Congress failed to reach an agreement.

The tobacco companies settled with 46 states last November for $206 billion over 25 years. The industry earlier agreed to pay the other four states $40 billion in the same period.

''These settlements belong to the states,'' said Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican who is leading the effort to permit states to control the money without federal intervention.

Antitobacco activists said the failure to require states to use part of the settlement on prevention programs would increase diseases and public health costs related to smoking.

''These settlements resulted from the harms caused by tobacco,'' said Kathryn Kahler Vose, a spokeswoman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. ''At least a part of it should be spent to reduce that harm in the future.''

The Clinton administration has indicated it will waive any claims to the money if the states formally agree to spend a portion of the settlement to prevent youth smoking, support tobacco farmers, and bolster public health programs, as the Meehan-Hansen bill proposes.

In Massachusetts, Governor Paul Cellucci has proposed using the state's anticipated $7.6 billion from the agreement to improve health care for children, the elderly, and the needy.

This story ran on page A08 of the Boston Globe on 03/09/99.