New front in tobacco wars

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The american legacy foundation's decision to pull two commercials from the first wave of its anti-smoking campaign was prudent. The decision, however, unmasks a potential conflict over control of the campaign that could spell bigger trouble for the future.

Tobacco marketers have no direct hand in running the foundation, but they nonetheless are its unwanted "partner" on a key creative issue. Under the 1998 tobacco liability settlement with the states, in which the companies agreed to pay $1.5 billion to finance the foundation's youth anti-smoking campaign, tobacco marketers -- shrewdly it now appears -- won agreement from the states that the ads would not "villify" the industry.

Once established, the foundation hired Arnold Communications, Boston, and Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami -- agencies that created potent anti-smoking campaigns for state government public health programs. The creative in those campaigns often relied on demonizing tobacco companies and their executives as the best means of reaching teens. Not surprisingly, these agencies turned out some equally anti-industry commercials for the foundation.

In one new foundation spot, body bags are piled up outside the New York headquarters of Philip Morris Cos.; in another, a teen with a lie-detector tries to interview a tobacco company executive. After Philip Morris complained the commercials violated the "spirit" of the 1998 settlement, the foundation announced the two commercials were being withdrawn. (Seven other spots in its "Truth" campaign, with far less confrontational creative, were not withdrawn, however.)

There are tough decisions ahead. A major breach with the industry in the future could snarl funding for the foundation's program. Vital media outlets could refuse to clear foundation ads. (Already some spots in the "Truth" campaign were rejected as objectionable by CBS.) But the public has neither sympathy for tobacco marketers nor gratitude for their financing of the foundation. Heavy-handed industry insistence on its rights under the settlement would stir public resentment.

Both sides need to find a way to live together before this first dispute spins into another and another. The foundation needs to preserve its financing and freedom to act independently, and the tobacco companies need to be careful how they wield their powers under the 1998 settlement. The industry is not entitled to expect kid gloves treatment from the foundation; the foundation is not entitled to embrace an "anything goes" approach to creative. If foundation and industry can't work with that, scrap the present agreement and start over.

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