The Fall of Big Tobacco
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  Page Three

Tension at the Table

It took several months to pull the pieces together, but on April 3, 1997, former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell – now a tobacco lobbyist – formally opened peace talks. Seated in a cramped conference room at the Crystal City Marriott outside Washington, Mitchell greeted the bitter enemies.

"We have a historic opportunity," he said. "The tobacco industry is sincere in its desire to reach a resolution."

Together for the first time were the veterans of America's tobacco wars: Big Tobacco's corporate chiefs and hired guns; the state attorneys general teamed with private trial lawyers; and a lone public health advocate, Matthew L. Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The White House kept its distance, but Lindsey's regular phone calls to the negotiators confirmed the president's ardor for a deal. Congress was not represented.

Despite Mitchell's pledge, the enmity in the room that day was so great that "almost all of us, when we got into this, did not think it would work," said attorney John P. Coale. But they eventually reached a deal to pay $368.5 billion over 25 years and agree to FDA oversight and marketing restrictions, in exchange for some protections from lawsuits.

Exhaling Too Soon

By the time they signed the agreement last June 20, the industry leaders thought their problems were almost over. Their negotiators said Clinton would endorse the deal within days, and Congress would swiftly ratify it. But once again, they had misread the political winds. In the words of one White House policymaker, they were "almost childlike in their naivete."

"The Constitution does not make any provision for Congress to delegate to private groups in secret meetings the power to write law," Gingrich said curtly a day after the deal was penned.

Clinton was silent. He said he wanted his advisers to review the specifics, but let a promised 30-day review period stretch to 90 days – meaning Congress would have little time to consider the matter before winter recess.

The news went downhill from there. Continued release of industry documents heaped detail on a pattern of deceit and possible criminal conduct. The Justice Department expanded an investigation of industry executives. Even Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., the Richmond Republican so friendly to the hometown business that he has been tagged "R-Philip Morris," went on the attack, demanding 39,000 pages of embarrassing corporate records.

"Gentlemen, the recent disclosures of documents ... have shaken my confidence that your companies care about the truth," the Virginian said as he opened a recent House hearing.

Meanwhile, rank-and-file Republicans began contemplating the fallout in autumn elections if they don't pass tough anti-smoking legislation.

"Members are afraid of the taint of that money" they've taken from tobacco, said a GOP aide. "There's a race to see who can punish the industry more."

Assessing the current state of the industry, one official summed it up: "There's a lot of internal sniping and second-guessing. You've got a sense of frustration that's close to panic."

Last month, Geoffrey Bible, Philip Morris CEO, made the rounds on Capitol Hill, hoping to educate lawmakers on the virtues of the deal. But when he arrived at the mahogany-paneled office of Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.), it was Bible who got the lesson, attendees said.

"This isn't last June; this is February 1998 and things aren't going well for you," Nickles said. "You are not going to get what you're looking for here."

What the industry doesn't know at this point is whether such statements mean "Make more concessions," or "It's really too late."

Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

NEXT: Two Mississippi lawyers take on Big Tobacco.

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