Atlanta — Cigarette smoking is ''the most widespread example of drug dependence in our country,'' says William Pollin, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
With this in mind, Congress is considering what kind of cigarette advertising is appropriate. At the same time, critics of cigarette ads are charging that some of the ads are intentionally aimed at teen-agers. Further, they are asking whether cigarette companies should make an effort to discourage young people from using their products.
The percentage of Americans, both youth and adults, who smoke is declining, according to federal surveys. But about one-third of Americans aged 17 or over smoke regularly, as do about 21 percent of high school seniors, these surveys show.
In his recent report to Congress, Dr. Pollin said some 56 million Americans smoke cigarettes. And according to an earlier federal report, 75 percent of those who smoke take it up before they are 21; about 45 percent begin before they are 18.
Antismoking activists say a confidential Federal Trade Commission (FTC) document recently made public and advertising practices by tobacco companies indicate that youth are definitely a target of cigarette ads. They say new smokers are being sought because of the decline in smoking among Americans, and most of the new smokers are not adults.
US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said last year that ''cigarette smoking is clearly identified as the chief preventable cause of death in our society.''
Proposals now before congressional committees would require tobacco companies to include more specific health warnings (naming certain diseases associated with smoking) in their ads and on cigarette packages. Congress banned cigarette advertising on radio and television as of 1971. The tobacco industry opposes the new legislation.
In interviews with tobacco company officials, advertising executives for and against cigarette advertising, federal investigators of the tobacco industry, and antismoking activists, these points were raised:
1. While millions of dollars' worth of tobacco advertising - often with young-looking models - appear each year in some magazines with a high youth readership, tobacco company officials say they are aiming at the even higher adult readership of those magazines.
2. While tobacco companies contend cigarette advertisements and promotions are not aimed at youth, critics contend the companies should take more responsibility for trying to discourage youth from smoking.
A writer in the Jan. 31 issue of Advertising Age magazine asked: ''The question is, should tobacco marketers be held particularly responsible for demystifying the smoking mystique among young people because of the potentially unhealthy nature of their product? Or is all fair in love, war, and marketing?''
Rep. Charlie Rose (D) of the tobacco state of North Carolina said in a recent congressional hearing that tobacco companies should take steps to discourage teen smoking.
''I would advise the tobacco industry to begin unilaterally an ad campaign to stress that smoking is an adult habit,'' Mr. Rose said in a telephone interview. He called on tobacco companies ''to only use mature models'' in their advertisements, calling the use of ''youthful models'' an ''unfortunate'' practice by the industry.
The tobacco industry spent some $1.2 billion on advertising and promotion in 1980, up from $491 million in 1975, according to the most recent FTC data. The federal government spent about $450,000 in 1982 on efforts to inform Americans about the health hazards of smoking, according to the federal Office on Smoking and Health. Based on these figures, for every dollar the government spends to discourage smoking, the tobacco industry spends $2,666.67 to encourage it.
Smoking is an ''adult custom,'' says a statement from the Tobacco Institute in Washington, D.C., which represents major tobacco companies.
Asked what, if anything, the tobacco industry spends on efforts to dissuade youth from smoking, William Toohey Jr., a spokesman for the institute, cited a series of advertisements that were run. He would not say how much was spent on the ads.
''We don't believe nonadults should smoke,'' says Nat Walker, spokesman for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
Tobacco companies contacted said they don't advertise in college publications or give away samples on college campuses. But no companies cited advertising expenditures to discourage teens from smoking.
''You can't manufacture a product and disparage it,'' says Joseph H. Greer, vice-president and general counsel of Liggett & Myers, a tobacco company.
In 1980, some $155 million was spent on cigarette advertising in 35 magazines with a ''high'' readership in the 18- to 24-year-old range, says Robert Hutchings of the US Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Smoking and Health. That was approximately 58 percent of the total cigarette advertising in US magazines as reported by the FTC for that year.
''Advertisers commonly use 'young' magazines to reach readers under 18 years of age,'' wrote Mr. Hutchings in a 198l report on cigarette advertising.
The report says that in 1980, the following magazines with a high youth readership each ran more than $5 million worth of cigarette ads (in order of highest spenders): Sports Illustrated, People, Family Circle, Woman's Day, McCall's, Playboy, Ladies' Home Journal, Redbook, Penthouse, Cosmopolitan.
Teen-agers are the ''secondary target'' of cigarette advertising, charges Bob Weymueller, director of government relations for the American Lung Association.
Some publishing companies openly invite advertisements aimed at young smokers. Ads for Rockbill, a marketing, publishing, and sales promotion company, claims ''instant visibility with today's 12- to 34-year-old audience,'' and boasts a 1983 campaign for Camel cigarettes. Brides magazine has advertised: ''Brides readers 18 to 24 smoke cigarettes 136 percent above the average woman.''
The American Lung Association recently recognized more than three dozen magazines that don't accept cigarette advertising. (This newspaper does not accept any tobacco advertisements.)
''There's no way you can advertise and have assurance you are reaching only adults,'' says R.J. Reynolds spokesman Walker. His company, he says, does not advertise in magazines with a median readership age below 21.
Ellen Merlo, director of marketing communications at Philip Morris, says her company does not advertise in any publication with more than a 50 percent readership under age 18. But critics of such advertising are worried that many young people read the same publications as adults.
''They [tobacco companies] can't prove that their advertising doesn't influence teen-agers; I can't prove it does, but every bit of advertising experience I have says it does,'' says Emerson Foote, a retired advertising executive, who says he wants all cigarette advertising banned. In 1964 Mr. Foote resigned as chairman of the board of McCann-Erickson, one of the world's largest advertising agencies, which had millions of dollars in cigarette accounts, in order to be free to work in the antismoking field.
''Since there is a grave doubt either way, let's decide in favor of health,'' he says. Critics also point to tobacco company sponsorship of events with a high youth audience, such as some sporting and musical events.
The current health warning required by the federal government on all cigarette advertising is inadequate, Mr. Sharp told a congressional panel last year. He urged more specific health warnings, saying that rotating a number of different warnings would attract more attention than repeatedly using the same wording. Such rotation is part of the proposed legislation. Tobacco companies, pointing to the declining number of American adult and youth smokers, say the current health warning is adequate.