- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2003

The Bush administration supports draconian international regulations against smoking. At least that is the message that was sent by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson on Sunday. Referring to the World Health Organization’s planned treaty to combat tobacco smoking worldwide, Mr. Thompson announced that, “Much to the surprise of many around the world, I am going to be supporting the tobacco treaty.” This does come as a surprise because it represents a U-turn by the Bush administration, which had been trying to water down the agreement, if not kill it altogether. We support the administration’s original position in opposition to the regulatory treaty.

The accord, which is set to be adopted tomorrow in Geneva at WHO’s annual meeting, proposes steep tobacco taxes, total bans on advertising, increased health-warning labeling on packaging and other regulations aimed at making it difficult for tobacco companies to do business. The restrictions would hit the American cigarette industry particularly hard, as new layers of red tape would be added in export markets. Washington’s efforts to write in a clause to allow individual nations to opt out of certain provisions were rejected, though U.S. businesses are protected from some strictures — such as the total advertising ban — by the U.S. Constitution. This legitimately opens the Bush administration to the charge that it hypocritically has backed restrictions for other nations it knows America can avoid.

The careful wording of the secretary’s weekend statement is important. As HHS spokesman Bill Pierce told us yesterday, “What Secretary Thompson said is that he supports the international consensus and moving forward on the treaty. He didn’t say that this means the president will sign it or send it forward for ratification by the Senate. That decision has not been made yet.” The tricky strategy is a way for the administration to have it both ways. It can receive praise for voting for adoption of the treaty by WHO without promising that it will become U.S. law — or even that the president will support it becoming law.

So what’s the point? Perhaps the policy shell game is the secretary’s swan song: a way to put his 2 cents in the process without any future legislative consequences. Mr. Thompson, who said last week that he doesn’t plan to stick around for a second Bush term, has such strong anti-smoking feelings that he frequently lectures on the dangers of cigarettes to HHS employees having a smoke outside the department’s Washington headquarters.

Tommy Thompson is a good-intentioned public servant who has dedicated years to furthering important causes, such as welfare reform. At times, however, he forgets that bureaucracies and regulations can do more harm than good. We don’t need a nanny state — particularly not one dictated by the international community.

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