BACK TO THE RAMPARTS

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The advertising industry again faces the unpleasant task of defending tobacco advertising. President Clinton is seeking the easy way out in trying to curb smoking among young people, and his proposals include major restrictions on promotion.

Granted, the proposed restrictions, along with giving the Food & Drug Administration some control over tobacco products and their advertising, is just an opening gambit; the president is willing to let Congress come up with its own plan to reduce underage smoking. But a major target in any plan is sure to be cigarette advertising, and any possible plan will go far beyond earlier talk of a self-regulatory group to screen ads to see they don't appeal to youngsters.

As we said last week in criticizing that idea, peer pressure, easy availability, affordable cost and the basic adolescent attraction to products that seem "adult" are far more potent influences in underage smoking than advertising. The un-marketing of smoking to teens could be far more effective than trying to dictate ad content. That, along with enforcement of state laws that ban the sale of cigarettes to minors, can do much more to stem teen smoking.

If the Clinton administration is allowed to prevail, the future will be fraught with attempts by various pressure groups to restrict or ban advertising for other legal but out-of-favor products.

No compelling evidence ties advertising to the increase in underage smoking, yet the government's action will be hailed by the majority of Americans, because at least the president is "doing something." Thus advertising people who defend the tobacco industry's right to advertise will be taking an unpopular stance. But there is no choice.

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