President Clinton is expected to use a visit to a Baptist conference in Charlotte, N.C., Aug. 9 to announce his approval for FDA Commissioner David Kessler to regulate tobacco as a drug. Dr. Kessler could immediately propose limited curbs on tobacco sales and advertising, but the exact restrictions were unclear.
"I think that smoking among youth should be diminished and the government has responsibility there," the president said last week.
The initial FDA regulation will almost certainly ban cigarette machines in locations where youths have access. New advertising restrictions, however, will likely be the biggest change.
Dr. Kessler in the July 20 edition of The New England Journal of Medicine suggested regulators try to "reduce access to tobacco products by children and teen-agers; to convince young people that nicotine is addictive and that tobacco products post serious health hazards for them, not just for other people, and to reduce the powerful imagery in tobacco advertising and promotion that encourages young people to begin using tobacco products."
Advertising and tobacco officials predicted any attempt to ban mascots like Joe Camel would bring long court battles. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. noted that FTC commissioners, who conducted an extensive review of Joe Camel advertising, concluded that while "it may seem intuitive to some that the Joe Camel advertising campaign would lead more children to smoke or lead children to smoke more, the evidence to support that intuition is not there."
Some outsiders, including the Centers for Disease Control, also have noted other factors could be responsible for smoking by young people, including the disappearance of anti-smoking ads from TV. From 1969 to 1971, one anti-smoking ad ran for every three or four tobacco ads. Tobacco companies pulled their ads in 1971. Recently, several groups have given up producing public service anti-smoking ads, citing the problems getting them aired.
Lawsuits might prevent any FDA regulation from ever taking effect especially given congressional Republicans' opposition and President Clinton's low popularity entering an election year.
Meanwhile, however, the President can draw on the tobacco industry's unpopularity to rally support. Anti-smoking groups last week cited a poll from the New York-based Global Strategy Group saying 80% of those surveyed nationally favor FDA regulation.
FDA regulation apparently was given the go ahead after the attempt by U.S. Reps Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) and Charlie Rose (D., N.C.) to craft an industry agreement either fell apart or was rejected. That plan would have had tobacco companies proposing a voluntary plan to run ads by some sort of panel to check their effect on those underage.
While tobacco companies generally declined comment last week awaiting a specific proposal, advertising groups and the Tobacco Institute were quick to react.
"If the anti-smoking restrictions succeed, it could be dangerous for all speech," said Tom Lauria, a Tobacco Institute spokesman. "It gives those that want to ban movie ads, candy ads, and alcohol ads the green light to pursue censorship."