June 24, 1998

Last week, 40 Republican Senators voted against a bill that could have saved a million lives. They voted against a bill that would have cut teen smoking in half and put more money into cancer research and child care. They voted against children and for the tobacco lobby.

The defeat of the tobacco bill was a stunning example of our elected representatives putting political self-interest above the health and well-being of America's families and children. It was a low moment for our democracy.

Although it's illegal in every state to sell cigarettes to minors, we know that 3,000 young people start smoking every day. Of these, 1,000 will die prematurely because of tobacco-related diseases. Directly and indirectly, all of us bear the costs of these deaths and of treating all the horrible diseases associated with cigarette smoking and tobacco use.

This is why the Food and Drug Administration took steps three years ago to prohibit the marketing of cigarettes to children and why the President has been working hard for the past year to forge a bipartisan compromise in Congress to protect our children from the dangers related to smoking.

The result was legislation, supported by a majority of the Senate and the American people, that contained the strongest anti-youth-smoking provisions in our history. But in an effort to rally its traditional supporters on Capitol Hill to defeat the package, Big Tobacco created a $40 million smoke screen that this bill was about taxes and big government and not about children and health.

Scared off by the industry's advertising campaign, a minority of Senators -- several of whom had supported the bill in committee -- blocked passage on a procedural vote. These Senators chose partisanship over progress. When the Republican leadership took the bill off the floor, the American people were robbed of their right to have their elected representatives cast a vote on the merits of the measure.

Once again, the tobacco industry's advertising has misled the American people. This bill is not about taxes and big government. This bill is about saving our children from the health hazards associated with tobacco -- health hazards that cigarette manufacturers have known about and covered up for decades. Their principal deceit was to claim, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that tobacco was not addictive. All the while, they deliberately used the addictive nature of nicotine to hook whole new generations of smokers.

That's why the President is not giving up. He will continue to fight the tobacco companies and the Republican leadership for comprehensive legislation in Congress until it passes. This week, he promised to oppose any "watered down" version of tobacco legislation that is designed to save the political lives of members of Congress -- rather than the lives of America's children.

We need a comprehensive approach to reducing teen smoking. First, all experts agree that the single most important step we can take to decrease youth smoking is to raise the price of cigarettes significantly. The tobacco bill, which was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee by a vote of 19-1, would have increased the price of a pack of cigarettes by $1.10 over five years.

Second, because industry advertising contributes to a teen's decision to smoke, any bill must prohibit marketing and promotion to kids. Third, the Food and Drug Administration must have full authority to regulate tobacco products.

Fourth, tobacco legislation should ensure progress toward other public health goals, including biomedical and cancer research, a reduction of secondhand smoke, and promotion of smoking-cessation programs. And, fifth, any bill should include protection for tobacco farmers and their communities.

This week, my husband took another important step when he asked the Department of Health and Human Services to collect new information on the use of tobacco by teenagers. This will help reduce teen smoking by providing information to parents and by enabling public health officials to determine how different kinds of marketing -- such as the Joe Camel campaign -- affect which brands teens choose to smoke.

The American people -- and especially parents -- care about protecting children from this deadly habit, and so does the President. This week, he called on the Congressional leadership to put families' interests above the interests of Big Tobacco. He said, "America's children deserve better, and I will continue to do everything in my power to ensure they receive it."

If 42 Senators had voted like parents instead of like politicians last week, America's children would have gotten what they deserve -- protection against the seductive marketing and physical addiction peddled by the tobacco companies and supported by their allies in Congress.