Bye, bye, Joe Camel? Tobacco regulations: Goal is to cut juvenile smoking by half in seven years.

September 07, 1996

IN ONE BREATH, the tobacco industry squawks that new regulations on tobacco advertising aimed at young people would cost thousands of jobs in an industry based on a legal crop. In the next breath, they argue the rules aren't necessary since smoking by minors is already illegal in all 50 states.

Such contradictions and contortions will become all too familiar as the tobacco industry prepares a full-fledged legal attack on the regulations that became final with their publication in the Federal Register. A pending lawsuit against the guidelines will now go forward, amid predictions of victory on both sides.

The tobacco lobby can draw hope from recent Supreme Court rulings that shore up constitutional protections for advertising or commercial speech. In one notable case last term, the court threw out a Rhode Island law aimed at decreasing alcohol consumption by prohibiting public advertising of liquor prices.

That would seem to bolster their case against the new guidelines, except for the fact that the administration can argue its goal is not to affect a legal activity -- smoking by adults -- but rather to decrease the incidence of an illegal activity -- smoking by juveniles. While the tobacco companies cannot publicly quarrel with this intent, most research shows that the customer base for their products is shaped by people who acquire a nicotine addiction before reaching adulthood. Any success in cutting the number of juvenile smokers will have a long-term impact on cigarette consumption in this country.

So the tobacco companies will spare no expense in the coming legal battles. Americans will hear a great deal about First Amendment rights and the fact that tobacco is a legal substance. They will also hear the countervailing arguments, including dismal statistics about tobacco's contribution to disease and death. By the administration's estimate, halving the number of underage smokers could save between $28 million and $43 million in health care costs each year.

Protections for commercial speech versus the government's ability to protect the health and safety of children -- that's a potent enough clash, even without the billion-dollar implications

for other affected industries, such as advertising and publishing. Keeping kids off nicotine won't be easy, even without such alluring symbols as the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel. But the financial repercussions are worth the eventual benefits.

Pub Date: 9/07/96

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