Philip Morris feels the heat

"Ashes to Ashes" author Richard Kluger examines the tobacco company's new effort to head off a government crackdown

Published May 21, 1996 12:13PM (EDT)

If you're a newspaper reader, it's been hard in recent days to miss the full-page Philip Morris ads trumpeting "A Common Ground solution" to the problem of teen smoking. Among the proposals put forward by the giant tobacco company are a minimum age of 18 to buy tobacco products, a ban on outdoor tobacco ads within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds, outlawing tobacco ads on mass transit, and severe restrictions on brand-name logos on clothing and on sponsorships of sports and entertainment events.

A major quid pro quo would be the elimination of the tobacco companies' bjte noire, the Food and Drug Administration, from regulatory oversight of the industry. Nevertheless, President Clinton, who has made teen smoking a major issue, said he thought the Philip Morris proposals could provide the basis for a legislative deal. Whether anti-smoking forces in Congress will go for it is another matter. But Philip Morris's move -- along with Liggett & Myers' willingness to settle an anti-tobacco liability lawsuit out of court -- is an indication that tobacco companies are finally beginning to feel some of the anti-smoking heat.

We asked Richard Kluger, author of the just-published book, "Ashes to Ashes: America's Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris (Knopf)," about the ongoing struggle for the hearts, minds and lungs of the American smoking public.

How significant, and how genuine, are Philip Morris' proposals on teen smoking?

It's definitely a sign that they're prepared to negotiate with the government. Some of the things they are proposing are things I suggested in "Ashes to Ashes" -- like bans on vending machine cigarettes and promotional campaigns. Their proposal to take their logos off promotional merchandise, that's something new, although it's pretty minimal stuff.

What they're trying to do is woo the White House and say maybe we can work this out without the FDA. They recognize that the real peril to them is if the FDA takes jurisdiction over tobacco -- which is what they said they intend to do. More than anything else, Philip Morris want to head that off. The only way to get them to sit down seriously is to grant them immunity from these product liability suits that are bedeviling them and costing them hundreds of millions of dollars. But I don't think anything will happen until after the election.

Will last week's Supreme Court ruling to overturn federal bans on advertising liquor prices have any effect on government attempts to limit tobacco advertising?

The tobacco industry hopes so, though I'm not sure that it is all that significant. The Supreme Court has been very fickle -- going one way, then another, on commercial free speech, which is the key to FDA jurisdiction over tobacco. But the Court's ruling on liquor price advertising was about the right to provide consumer information, which is very different.

One of your main proposals would forbid any use of illustrations, or even color, in cigarette advertising. Do you really think the industry would ever accept this?

They won't accept anything they don't have to. They would also argue that it's a violation of commercial free speech. But I think it's possible, without violating the First Amendment -- although it would be a close call with this Supreme Court -- to make cigarettes less seductive, and still permit what they call "tombstone advertising," where they announce the product and you can show the pack. You could also make the warning label larger.

In "Ashes to Ashes," you blame industry lawyers for the lack of regulations regarding cigarettes.

The tobacco companies have let themselves be lawyered into a corner. In effect their lawyers said to them, "If you are forthright with the public in terms of the risk of using your product, you're either going to be sued or regulated into ruination. Therefore stonewall." Which is what they did. And for 45 years the lawyers have been making a bundle with this tactic. But now their time is running out. The public is no longer going to let this go on, now that we know what the industry knew about the health dangers and the coverups.

But there still seems to be an awful lot of people smoking.

We're now down to about a quarter of the adult population smoking in this country. It was half 40 years ago. A major contribution to the decline has been the second-hand smoke issue. It's not nearly as serious a threat to your health -- it's about three percent as life threatening as direct smoking -- it but makes smoking seem like an anti-social act. It's like people have said, "If you want to smoke and take the risk of destructive behavior, that's your business, but don't blow it my way." And what's happening with regulation now is similar to the spitting laws a hundred years ago. Spitting was found to be not just unattractive, but to be a health menace. Germs collected, and you got TB. We're approaching something like that with smoking.

Will we get to the point where no one will be allowed to smoke?

I don't think it will happen and I don't think it's the ideal. What I think is ideal would be to gradually reduce the potency and toxic ingredients of cigarettes -- under FDA jurisdiction -- that would be almost imperceptible to smokers. That way, at least fewer people are going to get sick or die from the product. Sure, some people might smoke more of the weaker cigarettes. But you can also stick your hand in a fireplace if you want. If you want to still smoke yet not kill yourself, I think it's possible. And the science suggests that it may well be possible.

In an effort to stave off regulations, several tobacco companies have already come out with their own low-tar, low-nicotine cigarettes. Is this too little, too late?

The anti-smoking movement oppose these lighter cigarettes because they say, "Oh, it's just going to encourage kids to smoke, they'll think it's not bad for them, or it will keep people from quitting." But that's not an adequate reason to deny the product a chance to come to the market. RJR doesn't say it's new low-tar, low-nicotine brand is safer, but that's the inference. They say it's cleaner, it's smoke-free. It probably is safer. And I think it should damn well be allowed to come to the market.

Do you think the smoking issue will emerge in the presidential campaign?

Clinton is the first president to really take an anti-smoking position. As a political animal, he thinks it's good politics. And it looks to me like he's probably right. Since the electorate now is three-quarters non-smoking, if not anti-smoking -- and even those who smoke feel bad or defensive about it -- he's picked an issue whose time has come politically.
On the other hand, Dole, Gingrich and most of the Republicans think it's more liberal, crazy government stuff, and I think they're making a big mistake. I don't meant to sound partisan, but this is a public health issue, and if there's any excuse for government to exist, it's to protect the health of the public. Even for those people who don't particularly appreciate it.

Should the government crack down on the cigarette industry, or is the nicotine habit a matter of personal choice? Blow some smoke in
Table Talk.

Quote of the day

Another lawyer joke

"The joke used to be that a lot of women didn't vote for George Bush because he reminded them of their first husband. But the problem with Bob Dole is that he reminds them of their first husband's divorce lawyer."

-- Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, Calif., on the gender gap which has women voters favoring Pres. Clinton over Sen. Dole by up to 30 points.

By Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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