On Tobacco, the White House Brings In the Kids

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In backroom negotiations that continued into last weekend, the White House hammered out a deal with GOP senator John McCain to modify his $518 billion anti-tobacco bill, which will be the subject of contentious debate in the Senate this week. Despite demands from leading Senate Democrats -— and some Republicans -— that the price of a pack of cigarettes be raised by $1.50 over five years, the administration agreed to support McCain’s more modest $1.10-a-pack hike. In return, the Arizona senator strengthened the provisions that would penalize the industry for not meeting targets in reducing teen smoking. Also, McCain and the White House acted to pacify convenience-store owners by restricting the FDA’s ability to unilaterally ban the sale of cigarettes from a whole class of retail outlets.

To counter efforts to kill the bill (led by Republican senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma), the White House will stage a massive rally on the South Lawn on Wednesday, at which the President and Vice President will meet with 1,000 schoolchildren. That, according to public-health advocates, is the number of kids who, out of the 3,000 minors beginning to smoke each day in America, will eventually die from smoking-related illnesses. "We want to make every senator who votes against this look like he’s against children," says a White House official. The White House hopes McCain and other Republicans will attend. Privately, McCain is telling supporters that he expects the modified bill to pass -— but only after Congress takes its one-week Memorial Day recess.