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UNNEEDED AND UNWANTED -- ADVICE

Perhaps the problem is that Philip Morris doesn't fully comprehend its standing as possibly the most despised company in America. More likely, it just doesn't care.

One way or the other, the company that recently joined its peers in a historic, nationwide $206 billion tobacco settlement has decided that it should help New York decide how to spend its share of the money.

How thoughtful.

This courtesy comes only a few weeks after the same company, in an equally considerate gesture, acknowledged that for three years it had vastly underreported the amount of money it spent lobbying New York State legislators, a violation of the state lobbying law. Now, some observers say, the company has violated the terms of the settlement agreement, which bars it from certain kinds of lobbying activities related to how the money is spent. Talk about a foolish consistency.

Philip Morris has been urging state leaders to devote a significant portion of the money to dissuade teen-agers from smoking, but critics say that effort is a smoke screen designed to protect its base of adult smokers, and that the company knows an age-specific program won't work. A broader, more coordinated assault is needed, they say.

Not to be too blunt, but Philip Morris should butt out. Its help is neither wanted nor required in determining how to spend this money. The state of New York may or may not make wise decisions on what to do with it, but that's the state's decision to make, not Philip Morris'. Speeders don't get to tell the town how to spend their fines.

Watchdog organizations have asked Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to closely monitor Philip Morris lobbying to be sure the company remains within the bounds of the settlement. Given the company's history, that seems a little like trying to be sure Madonna doesn't talk dirty, but Spitzer should keep tabs, anyway. These guys need to be kept in their box.

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