THE JUSTICE Department's mammoth lawsuit against the country's major tobacco companies got underway this week. Filed by the Clinton administration to considerable Republican hostility, it seeks to recover $280 billion in profits from an alleged decades-long scheme to defraud the public about the harmful effects of smoking. Republicans on Capitol Hill sought to defund it at one point. The Bush administration at first talked of settling the case but ended up pursuing it vigorously. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft described it this week as "an important effort to prevent fraudulent activity and uphold corporate integrity" and said he hoped it would help in "preventing cigarette manufacturers from marketing to young people in this country."

The case actually has only limited potential to serve this latter function. While it could result in some new marketing restrictions, it is largely a fight about money. Steps that would help bring tobacco marketing under control cannot be achieved through litigation but require congressional action -- specifically, giving the Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority over a product that kills more than 400,000 Americans each year. And unfortunately, the Bush administration has not lifted a finger to make that happen.

Even now, an FDA regulation bill is in danger. In the Senate it is paired with a provision to buy out struggling tobacco farmers, the idea being to ally tobacco-state members of Congress with advocates of tobacco control. Unfortunately, the House approved the buyout without the FDA control -- and a version of the buyout that, unlike the Senate bill, would cost taxpayers, not industry, nearly $10 billion. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has made clear that he means to fight for this favor to the industry, and never mind public health.

Yet the president remains silent. When Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said that he supported FDA regulation, he was spanked and had to clarify that he was expressing his personal views. Even after the introduction of bipartisan legislation supported by both the country's largest cigarette maker and anti-tobacco forces, Presi- dent Bush has been unwilling to support the measure.

We would have thought that an administration that favors tort reform would be eager to create a legal framework for tobacco control outside of the courtroom. Yet, on this critical public health issue, Mr. Bush apparently prefers lawsuits to genuine political leadership.