Tobacco companies battle FDA plans Flurry of maneuvering closes comment period on cigarette regulation

January 03, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- A handful of lawyers from the tobacco industry stacked up 47,000 pages of documents yesterday, challenging the Food and Drug Administration's attempt to regulate cigarettes and smokeless tobacco as an illegal "power grab."

The anti-smoking forces countered with two kids from Kensington, Md., who said they bought cigarettes to show how easy it is for children to get them.

This was part of a battle on the last day for public comment on an FDA proposal intended to slash underage smoking in half over the next seven years.

At the same time, the office of U.S. Sen. Wendell H. Ford, a Kentucky Democrat, released a letter signed by Majority Leader Bob Dole, Minority Leader Tom Daschle and 30 other senators "strenuously" objecting to FDA regulation of tobacco.

The proposed FDA rule would, the senators said, "trample First Amendment rights to advertise legal products to adults."

The countering arguments show how much is at stake, in money and public health, as the FDA takes on the tobacco industry.

Down the hall from the industry's pile of paper, Morgan Lesko, 14, said, "More and more, my eighth-grade classmates are starting to smoke and they won't be able to stop, probably."

Over the past six years, young Lesko said, he and his younger brother, Max, have bought at least 26 packs of cigarettes from vending machines. "We were only stopped once," he said, "and that was by a customer."

Steven C. Parrish, senior vice president for Philip Morris Companies Inc., the nation's largest cigarette-maker, agreed that children should not smoke and that more should be done to prevent them from smoking.

But he said the FDA proposes far more than restricting youth access to cigarettes. And he predicted that the agency's ultimate goal would be to ban cigarettes altogether, even though FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler has said such a ban would JTC provoke social turmoil.

FDA spokesman Jim O'Hara said yesterday there is no timetable for reviewing the comments and issuing final regulations.

But the process is likely to become stalled for years in the courts unless some type of compromise legislation is passed by Congress. The tobacco companies and advertising groups have sued to block the FDA from going ahead with its plan.

Mr. Parrish said the agency's proposal would cost retailers, advertisers and the tobacco industry about $1 billion a year -- not counting any lost sales. Retailers stand to lose more than $500 million a year that cigarette companies pay to assure that their brands get placed in good locations at the store, an industry-sponsored study found.

Mr. Parrish and other industry officials said they did not know what effect, if any, there would be on cigarette sales.

The industry's filing yesterday was made by Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson, Lorillard Tobacco Co., Liggett Group Inc. and the Tobacco Institute Inc.

The FDA proposals also contain sharp restrictions on cigarette advertising -- prohibiting outdoor advertising within 1,000 feet of a school or playground, prohibiting brand-name sponsorship of sporting events, banning promotional items such as caps and T-shirts with cigarette brand names, and curtailing advertising in magazines with substantial youth readership.

Charles Blixt, senior vice president and general counsel for the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., said this did not make sense, because teen-agers start smoking because of peer pressure. "It has nothing to do with advertising," he said.

Eleven-year-old Max Lesko disputed that. "Where does peer pressure start from?" he asked. "Advertising."

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