While the tobacco industry won a major victory Tuesday when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Food and Drug Administration lacks authority to regulate tobacco as an addictive drug, that was only one front in the courtroom war the industry is waging against anti-smoking forces. The overall picture still looks bleak for Big Tobacco.
The floodgates have literally burst open in tobacco litigation, with a wave of class action and personal liability suits threatening to bankrupt the industry. Big Tobacco used to be able to count on winning such cases. Now, it has grown painfully accustomed to losing them. Practically in a state of desperation, cigarette makers are looking to Washington for help.
Tuesday's high court ruling set the stage for debate in the nation's Capitol. In deciding that only Congress, not a federal agency, could initiate tobacco regulations, the court majority dropped the issue squarely in the laps of the lawmakers.
Industry leaders have indicated they would be willing to accept some regulation in return for relief by Congress from the rising tide of litigation. Their ultimate hope is that they can persuade lawmakers to pass something to get the lawyers off their backs while they concentrate on developing a "safe," or non-addictive, cigarette which would solve their liability problems.
Unfortunately, this is an election year, and Congress may be reluctant to wade into the swift political currents always running through an issue as touchy as cigarettes. It would seem that, this time, it is Big Tobacco that would have the most to lose from Washington inaction.
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