STOCKS WERE UP this week at Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds as John Ashcroft left no doubt that big tobacco's investment in the Republican Party has paid off.
Attorney General Ashcroft has asked his Justice Department to see if it can settle out of court with the nation's cigarette makers. Under the circumstances, that is waving the white flag.
Under former President Clinton, the Justice Department sued big tobacco because smoking costs the federal system $20 billion a year in health care costs. Because of the suit, big tobacco threw $8 million into the 2000 elections, giving four out of every five dollars to Republican candidates. As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush made clear his lack of interest in the lawsuit by saying, ''We've filed plenty of lawsuits already.''
Bush won, then made Ashcroft the attorney general. Nine years ago as governor of Missouri, Ashcroft had something of a conscience about big tobacco. He signed a bill that restricted smoking in public places and banned the sale of tobacco to minors. Missouri had been one of only two states left that did not ban the sale of tobacco to people under the age of 18.
''Cigarette smoking remains the greatest preventable cause of death in Missouri and the nation,'' Ashcroft said then. ''Fifteen percent of Missouri's eighth-graders are regular smokers.''
As he moved up the national leadership ladder, Ashcroft became more reluctant to bite the tobacco leaf that fed his party. Ashcroft was a principal deal killer in the failed 1998 attempt by the Senate to raise cigarette prices. Despite the fact that higher cigarette taxes discourage smoking, Ashcroft railed against them for three hours on the Senate floor.
Despite the fact that cigarette makers prey on the self-esteem of poor people and the working class to get them addicted to cigarettes, Ashcroft argued that cigarette taxes were unfair to the poor.
''Worst of all, the lion's share of this tax hike would come from households with incomes of $30,000 or less,'' Ashcroft said then. ''This massive tax increase on middle- and low-income Americans would likely end up hurting children, by taking money that could be spent on education, food, clothing, health care, and other needs of daily life.''
This was from the same champion of the poor who in 1995 opposed a rise in the minimum wage from $4.25 an hour to $5.15.
To Ashcroft, it is better that low-income people have low cigarette taxes so that they can better afford the nicotine to ease their mind about their low incomes.
It was now irrelevant to him that the cigarette addictions that often start around eighth grade hurt children for the rest of their lives, draining money for education, food, clothing, health care, and other needs of daily life. Cigarette taxes do not kill 400,000 people a year. Cigarettes do.
Given that, it would have been a miracle had Ashcroft aggressively continued the Justice Department's suit. Last year, US District Judge Gladys Kessler dismissed part of the suit, saying ''it is simply inconceivable'' that after decades where Congress ignored and helped subsidize big tobacco that the government could now nail it for health care costs.
But in an important pause, Kessler said the government could still go after big tobacco on racketeering charges for fraud. The government said cigarette companies made ''countless false and deceptive statements'' about their products. There is now ample evidence of tobacco executives concealing the dangers of smoking and misleading the public about those dangers.
There was enough evidence for Ashcroft to continue to give the suit a shot. Instead, he shot it in the foot in a way that surprised even big tobacco.
Justice officials said publicly that they were worried about ultimately losing the suit. By seeing such a weak hand at the outset, big tobacco is already boasting it will not settle for anything at all. ''We are not willing to settle for any amount of money,'' said R.J. Reynolds spokesman Seth Moskowitz.
Just because Ashcroft's sinking of the suit is no surprise does not mean it is not important. In his successful bid to defeat cigarette taxes as a senator, Ashcroft said, ''This is a defining moment for the Republican Party.''
This, too, is a defining moment. Big tobacco paid to put the Republican Party in the White House. The White House has all but dropped the suit against big tobacco. Smoking remains the greatest preventable cause of death in the nation. Rather than preventing death, the Justice Department just played prevent defense for the merchants of death.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company