A national anti-smoking organization demanded yesterday that the Federal Trade Commission impose health warning labels on U.S. cigar packaging and advertising. And the FTC chairman said his agency might respond within two months with what could be a landmark ruling.
Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), a Washington group whose legal actions have played a pioneering role in the ban on cigarette television commercials and other seminal tobacco regulations, filed a formal petition with the FTC, requesting a warning label similar to that imposed on cigarettes to "prevent an unfair and deceptive trade practice."
Cigars, which do not carry a U.S. surgeon general's warning label, have escaped government scrutiny for decades and enjoyed a national renaissance in the 1990s. But a major report by the National Cancer Institute last week shattered the myth that cigars are less deadly than cigarettes.
"I'm very alarmed so many people see cigars as a safer alternative to cigarettes," said John Banzhaf, ASH's executive director. "I'm very alarmed by the growing number of kids smoking cigars. What we need is a dose of reality, which would be supplied by an appropriate and strict health warning."
Just as ASH maintains that it would be a deceptive practice to permit cigars to be sold without warning labels, more than 30 years ago, the FTC determined that it was unfair for cigarette manufacturers to market their product without adequate health warnings. Congress ultimately enacted legislation mandating cigarette labels.
Now, Banzhaf's petition is triggering a legal process that calls on the FTC to act on cigars within a "reasonable" period. If the FTC fails to act, Banzhaf said he would take the agency to court. That might not be necessary, given the stance of FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky, who said in an interview yesterday that "mandated health warnings are called for."
The FTC could act within two to six months, Pitofsky said. The independent federal commission could require health warning labels on cigars, he said, or recommend that Congress enact legislation.
Pitofsky also indicated that the FTC is likely to incorporate cigar marketing and analysis in its annual tobacco reports to Congress. "It's something that needs to be addressed," he said. "People could come to the erroneous conclusion that cigars are safe."
The cigar industry maintained yesterday that no federal action is required. "There already is a warning label on cigars because 95 percent or more of the cigars sold in the U.S. carry a warning label mandated by the state of California, and that has been the case since 1989," said Norman F. Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America.
Leaders in the health community, however, hailed the prospect of a federal warning label -- government concurrence that smoking cigars can cause cancer and other diseases.
"I think all tobacco products, and that includes cigars, should have warning labels," former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said in an interview yesterday. "I am concerned about it. I'm concerned about the fact that a lot of kids are smoking cigars. Even the adult population is not aware that one cigar can be equal to five or more cigarettes."
In requesting FTC action, Banzhaf cited studies showing that former cigarette smokers are switching to cigars, the danger of second-hand smoke and the rise in teen-age cigar smoking. An estimated 6 million teen-agers nationwide have tried cigars, according to federal health officials.
He also expressed concern over the industry's use of paid product placements in movies and on television. The controversial practice -- which Banzhaf said is covered by his petition -- was documented in a three-part series published by The Sun in January. The articles also showed how cigar makers planned the product's resurrection over nearly two decades; targeted women, the young and the wealthy; manipulated the media; and eluded government regulators.
Since then, pressure has been mounting from members of Congress, anti-tobacco activists and health organizations to restrict cigar promotions and marketing practices.
The FTC and the inspector general's office of the Department of Health and Human Services have launched investigations into the industry. Cigar manufacturers have pledged to stop placing their products in movies and television. And the government concluded that cigar smoking can cause cancers of the mouth, esophagus, larynx and lung.
FTC action on a warning label is long overdue, Dr. Ronald M. Davis, director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, said yesterday. "We've known a long time that cigar and pipe smoking are harmful to health and that they're a cause of mouth cancer and throat cancer and other conditions."
Pub Date: 4/14/98