CLINTON HEALTH PLAN JUST A LOT OF SMOKE

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You can't have it both ways-except, apparently, in Washington.

On the one hand, the Clinton administration is counting on a big cigarette tax hike to help fund its healthcare insurance plan that "can never be taken away." (Unless, of course, the government runs out of money to pay for it.)

On the other hand, the Food & Drug Administration is thinking of ways to regulate the sale of cigarettes because they're addictive. And if the FDA decides that the amount of nicotine in cigarettes is unsafe for consumer consumption, it could do anything from banning their sale altogether to requiring a doctor's prescription to drastically restricting cigarette advertising. Under the last scenario, ads would be confined to a detailed analysis of the harm cigarettes can do. And packages would be loaded with a variety of health-related information for smokers and would-be smokers. The ads would presumably resemble those prescription drug ads that use most of the space listing all the possible side effects of the medication.

All of this would not be conducive to robust cigarette sales, but I don't think the Clinton people are factoring in declining sales when they compute tax revenue for their healthcare scheme. There's no doubt, however, that the FDA's deliberations are sure to throw a monkey wrench into their projections. The reality is that if the government needs to raise an additional $25 billion in cigarette taxes it should be extolling the virtues of smoking.

Maybe the feds will start their own ad campaign. "Keep lighting up, America," the headline could proclaim. "By smoking just three packs a day you're helping provide insurance that can never be taken away. And with all that smoking, you're going to need it."

Then we have the Marlboro factor at work here. Everybody (but the government) knows that higher cigarette prices lower consumption. Marlboro found that out the hard way, and on one fateful Friday drastically and dramatically slashed its price. Sales took off to record levels. When a $1 or even $2 tax is slapped on each pack (or an equivalent price increase, as Marlboro did over the years), cigarette sales can be counted on to plummet.

So to keep sales up and tax revenues flowing in, the Clinton team had better mail out discount coupons and offer free merchandise for proof of purchase. And they'd better include stuff that will appeal to teen-agers because they need a constant influx of new smokers into the marketplace.

President Clinton is counting on cigarette taxes to pay for 25% of his $100 billion universal healthcare scheme. The cigarette companies and the government, each for their own reasons, are partners in this humanitarian program, so you can bet your last tax deduction that the federal government's vast marketing armada is being deployed to keep America puffing.

I hear they've already scored their first hit-Joe Camel is taking over for Barney on PBS.

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