WHEN CONGRESS returns from its summer recess, one key item of business will be conference committee work on a corporate tax bill. The bill has many problems that need to be fixed, but it also contains an unprecedented opportunity to improve American public health. Tacked on to the Senate version of the bill is an unrelated amendment that would give the Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority over tobac- co products. Its inclusion, along with an equally unrelated provision to buy out struggling tobacco farmers, was the product of an overwhelming Senate vote that represented the first time in the long-running tobacco wars that either house of Congress has voted on FDA jurisdiction. The bill has the support of major public health groups and Altria Group Inc., parent of tobacco giant Philip Morris. Substantial regulatory control over tobacco, which kills more than 400,000 Americans a year, has never been so close.

Yet it all could easily fall apart. A House version of the bill does not contain FDA author- ity. What's more, its version of the grower buyout is a grotesque abuse of the public coffers. The idea of the buyout, a key priority of tobacco state legislators, is to replace the antiquated, Depression-era "quota" system of tobacco farming, in which farmers have the right to grow certain amounts of tobacco; the government would buy back the quotas. But unlike the Senate, which would have the industry fund the buyout, the House would bill taxpayers for the nearly $10 billion cost. Instead of getting regulatory control over the contents and marketing of tobacco products, the public would get to pay out a giant sum.

If that sounds like raw deal, it's because it is. Senate conferees should insist on maintaining the Senate's link between an industry-funded buyout and the FDA bill. The FDA bill probably can't pass without being tied to the buyout that tobacco state representatives so desperately want. Members who care about public health need to make sure that the buyout won't pass without the FDA measure that could, in the long run, save many lives.