- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 16, 2002

When George W. Bush was campaigning for the presidency, he promised to restore honor and dignity to the White House. He has kept that promise. The only thing one might now find under the desk in the Oval Office is a faithful dog, hoping for a pat or a doggy treat.

But that was not the only promise Mr. Bush made during his campaign. On Aug. 6, 2000, when speaking in the fine Southern state of Virginia, Mr. Bush promised that, if he were elected, he would drop the Justice Department's lawsuit against the tobacco industry. He said, "I don't think you can sue your way to policy. The lawyers I talk to don't feel [the Justice Department] has a case."

Now, part of restoring honor to the White House is keeping promises. It is, therefore, curious that, more than a year into the Bush administration, the Justice Department has not dropped its lawsuit against the tobacco companies. On the contrary, the Bush Justice Department is going even farther than did the Clinton Justice Department in its jihad against tobacco. The federal government may now claim as much as $959 billion from the tobacco companies an amount that would put them all out of business. In order to pay such a penalty, the industry would have to charge $243.90 for a pack of cigarettes.

Nor is that all. The Bush Justice Department is demanding that the court replace Congress in making laws regulating tobacco. It wants the court to penalize tobacco companies further if youth smoking does not decline an action rejected by the Senate in 1998. It wants the court to redesign cigarette packs a violation of federal law, which states that only Congress may decide what health warnings go on the packages. It even wants the courts to develop a new, "less hazardous" cigarette. Perhaps we can use lawyers instead of white rats in medical experiments.

Even one of the Clinton administration's most notorious commissars, then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich, called lawsuits such as those against tobacco companies "end-runs around the democratic process." In the Jan. 12, 2000, edition of the Wall Street Journal, he stated that "[w]e used to be a nation of laws, but this new strategy presents novel means of legislating within settlement negotiations of large civil lawsuits initiated by the executive branch. This is faux legislation which sacrifices democracy to the discretion of administration officials operating in secret."

The precedent set by the tobacco lawsuit is already spawning bastard children directed against other industries. Guns seem to be at the head of the list. A number of cities have already begun lawsuits against gun manufacturers, as if guns themselves popped out of manholes and mugged people. The politically correct left (with which one would think the Bush administration would be hesitant to get into bed) is already yapping about fatty foods; the legal case will be that Burger King and Dunkin' Donuts should pay for treating all those heart attack cases. Does this mean that the real object will be to prohibit guns and fast food, just as the object now is eventually to prohibit tobacco? It does indeed; once prohibition gets started, it can be difficult to stop it.

Not only does the tobacco lawsuit set an ugly precedent for similar shakedowns against other industries, but it grossly misuses federal statutes to do so. The Justice Department is going after the tobacco industry under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as the RICO statute, a dangerously powerful law that was created solely to prosecute organized crime. Any use of RICO for another purpose is a threat to all civil liberties. And, because RICO supposedly forces tobacco companies to "disgorge" "ill-gotten gains," it raises the question of why the federal government should not have to also "disgorge" all the revenue it ever received from taxes on tobacco. In effect, the Justice Department's suit against the tobacco industry should logically lead it to also sue itself.

Of all the oddities surrounding the government's behavior on this issue, the oddest remains the fact that the Bush administration is carrying on a liberal Democrat policy. It is Democrats, not Republicans, who promise to turn America into a padded cell where no one can possibly hurt himself, even if he wants to. To the degree Republicans stand for anything, they stand for less government and more freedom. Presumably, that is what led candidate George W. Bush to promise Virginia voters that he would end the federal show trial of tobacco.

So, how about it, Mr. President? After all, you promised. And restoring honor, if not dignity, to the White House means a promise made should be a promise kept.

Eric Licht is president of Coalitions for America.

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