THE LONG RETREAT BEGINS FOR SMOKES

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I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.

Philip Morris, over the howling protests of the advertising trade associations, is preparing to abandon hard-fought First Amendment rights to advertise and promote a legal-if highly suspect-product. To get the Food & Drug Administration off its back, PM has agreed to curtail some advertising and promotion practices that could be construed as trying to influence kids.

The cigarette and package-goods colossus proposed legislation be enacted (somewhat similar to the scenario that banned TV advertising for cigarettes in 1971), to ban outdoor boards within 1,000 feet of a school or playground and limit magazines in which cigarettes can advertise-rules PM, other cigarette companies and the ad industry are fighting in court as unconstitutional.

This is just the first round, of course, and Philip Morris has a lot more ground to give. For instance, its proposal calls for limiting event sponsorship and signage, but excludes the two biggest, motor sports and rodeos. And PM's willing to pull out of magazines where 15% or more of subscribers-but not readers-are under the age of 18. Of course, most young people let their parents subscribe but they are still avid readers.

President Clinton has praised the Philip Morris proposal but added it didn't go far enough. The company, and U.S. Tobacco Co., which endorsed the PM initiative, appeared ready to compromise.

As a matter of fact, U.S. Tobacco the other day took out a page ad in USA Today saying the company agrees with FDA's goals on protecting kids against tobacco. "We're encouraged by the president's reaction to our proposal and his willingness to discuss it further," the ad stated.

So more concessions on advertising and promotion are definitely in the air, and eventually, the cigarette industry won't have anything else to give away. Their ad message will become a dribble rather than the torrent it is now.

That state of affairs probably will serve the cigarette makers just fine, as they go on to greener pastures. Other areas of the world aren't as inhospitable toward smoking as we are, so there is plenty of business outside the U.S. to keep their plants humming.

Last fall, I predicted that the cigarette companies, "when they're good and ready, are going to `voluntarily' stop advertising anyway. So why should the advertising industry use up its good credit protecting an industry that's cynically using advertising to divert its critics?"

The advertising industry, I realize, is between a rock and a hard place. "Our mission has always been clear," Wally Snyder, president of American Advertising Federation, told me. "Our job is to protect the overall rights of the entire industry. If that's how the day ends, and the cigarette companies withdraw from advertising, we'll have done our jobs."

Even if it means that the cigarette companies no longer care about having their First Amendment rights protected by those pesky and obstinate advertising trade groups.

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