CALIFORNIA WAITING FOR SMOKE TO CLEAR TOBACCO COMPANIES' ADS TOUT RESTRICTIONS

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These are confusing times in California.

Cigarette marketers are bankrolling a massive campaign to promote statewide smoking restrictions. And though cigarette ads are off TV, tobacco company CEOs are on TV-in a state-sponsored anti-smoking campaign.

There's good news for believers in the power of advertising: Both campaigns seem to be working.

Proposition 188, an attempt to replace tough, local smoking restrictions and a recently passed statewide act with a watered-down policy, is likely to pass, based on recent polls. And most of the credit goes to a slick media campaign run by Dolphin Group, a Los Angeles political consultancy.

The effort is mainly funded by the nation's five top cigarette marketers under the banner Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions.

The tobacco-backed group spent more than $6 million through Sept. 30, much of it on heavy direct mail and outdoor boards. The group's chief consultant at Dolphin, Lee Stitzenberger, was unavailable for comment late last week. However, he reportedly has said he has no plans for TV ads.

That may be smart. Yes-on-188 TV ads could generate controversy over whether the ads were protected political speech, or commercial advertising in violation of the federal ban on tobacco TV commercials. This in turn could create something tobacco marketers are laboring to avoid: Press attention on tobacco's connection with Prop 188.

Dr. Stan Glantz, a medical professor and leading California anti-smoking activist, said he "wouldn't be surprised" if tobacco interests invest $30 million by Election Day.

To sell Prop 188, the media campaign borrows the rhetoric of the anti-smoking movement. "Tough statewide smoking restrictions," ads say, are "the right choice."

"It is in my mind the most deceptive campaign in my quarter century [of] close observation of California politics," said Democratic state Assemblyman Terry Friedman, an archenemy of tobacco.

Having conceived Prop 188, tobacco interests can't afford to lose, Dr. Glantz said. "If they lose, it's going to put a rocket behind the tobacco control movement in the nation and the world, because they will have lost in the trend-setting state," he said.

So far, the no-on-188 media campaign has been almost invisible, with time running out. Through Sept. 30, the no campaign spent $140,000. A no-on-188 campaign spokesman didn't return phone calls.

The California Department of Health Services is having more success with its anti-smoking ads. The percentage of Californians who smoke has fallen to 19.1% from 26.7% since the campaign began four years ago, with ads a key factor, health officials say.

A new spot, featuring footage of four cigarette company CEOs denying to Congress that nicotine is addictive, drew the ire of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Chairman James Johnston (AA, Oct. 17). Mr. Johnston and his attorneys threatened a libel suit over the spot, from Asher/Gould, Los Angeles, because it suggests he lied to Congress. The department and agency deny that.

Reynolds believes anti-smoking advocates have a "right to advertise, to criticize us, to say they disagree with us," said Wayne Juchatz, Reynolds exec VP-general counsel. But "there don't seem to be rules or laws that hold the other side in check," he said.

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