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Fourteen Democratic U.S. senators are calling on media companies that accept the tobacco-industry ads opposing legislation to counter the paid ads with free public service announcements warning about the dangers of cigarette smoking.

Sen. Jack Reed (D., R.I.) last week dispatched letters to major networks, owners of broadcast groups, newspaper publishers and other major media companies.

Sen. Reed said the tobacco companies have a right to state their view, but the PSAs are needed to "provide a balanced view and assure that people are not hoodwinked."

Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) said the tobacco companies are doing more than talking about a bill in their current campaign from Bozell/Eskew, Washington. The ads began running a month ago, and characterize the tobacco legislation as big government and big taxes.


"After months and years of negative publicity, they are trying to blame the politicians," he said. "We think it is totally unfair. What is at stake here is the health of our children, and we want to remind the station managers to remind the American people of that."

The letter also was signed by Sens. Paul Wellstone (D., Minn.), Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.) and Tom Harkin (D., Iowa).

There had been reports the industry would spend $50 million on the campaign; as of the end of last week, spending appears to be about $15 million to $20 million, according to media buyers.

A new wave of advertising talking about black-market cigarettes began running late last week in newspapers and on TV and radio stations in about 50 markets.

The tobacco industry said it supports the broadcast of "genuine" PSAs warning about the dangers of underage smoking but noted that decisions on airtime should come from individual stations.


"We would welcome the decision by any station to broadcast genuine PSAs. But it defies logic and is just plain silly for members of Congress to link the industry's advocacy ads regarding current legislation . . . with the incidence of tobacco use in this country."

John Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America, said that while it's up to individual newspapers to decide what public service ads they run, the tobacco issue has been extensively discussed in news coverage.

"Regardless of whether newspapers receive this advertising or not, I have little doubt that all views on the issues of teen smoking and tobacco-related illnesses and effects of smoking will be covered fully by America's newspapers," he said.

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