Major medical group seeking ban on print advertising of tobacco. But opponents argue such a ban would violate freedom of the press

If the American Medical Association (AMA) gets its way, cigarette manufacturers will no longer be able to buy space for printed advertising. The AMA wants to eliminate all tobacco advertising. Its campaign to get tobacco out of public life received yet another boost yesterday when the AMA's governing body adopted a resolution calling for a federal law banning all tobacco advertising at its meeting here.

``It's an important first step,'' says Dr. Robert McAffee, a member of the AMA's board of trustees and an advocate of the advertising ban. ``We have to remove opportunities [for tobacco companies] to present smoking as something glamorous and wonderful to people, especially to young people.''

But the AMA may soon find itself in the midst of a constitutional quagmire. Both the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Tobacco Institute, the tobacco industry's trade association, vow to fight in Congress and, if necessary in court, any attempt to ban advertising, as a violation of the constitutional guarantee to a free press.

``Any attempt to violate the Bill of Rights is repugnant to me and anyone else here,'' says Walker Merryman, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute. Legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union Barry Lynn adds: ``All the commercial speech cases in the Supreme Court make it clear that any prohibitions on truthful advertisements have to meet constitutional requirements. . . . I think the issue [proposed by the AMA] will be hotly debated, but I don't think it will go anywhere.''

Since 1971, a congressionally mandated statute has barred cigarette advertising from television and radio. By 1973, that prohibition was extended to include ``little cigars.'' The laws were supported by court decisions ruling that the government had the right to regulate broadcast media because the air waves, unlike newsprint, are public property.

Shortly after the legislation passed, the tobacco industry dramatically increased its expenditures for printed cigarette advertising. Estimates put this year's outlay at $2 billion.

These high advertising expenses nettle many antitobacco activists, who charge that industry advertisements make a seductive attempt to persuade nonsmokers, particularly among US youth, to take up smoking. The tobacco industry insists its advertisements attempt only to win smokers from one brand to another rather than to recruit new smokers and vehemently denies those efforts present an attempt to encourage children to smoke. Its counterattack against such allegations has now taken the tobacco industry i nto the courtroom: in Chicago, the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation brought and won a libel suit against a local TV personality for on-the-air allegations that the company had aimed its cigarette advertisements at children.

Industry protestations notwithstanding, the movement to ban cigarette advertisements has been gaining momentum. Evidence as to whether advertising affects tobacco consumption is, however, less than clear. AMA spokesmen say that the advertising ban would be more effective than product-liability suits, which attempt to hold tobacco companies liable for deaths and injuries allegedly caused by tobacco consumption.

Last week, US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop declared a ``tremendous drop in smoking'' had occurred in European countries with advertising bans. Yet some members at the AMA meeting -- opposed to a ban on advertising -- cited studies showing no decrease in per capita consumption in countries banning cigarette ads. Tobacco Industry representatives also point to a gradual increase in US cigarette consumption since the ban on advertisements in electronic media as evidence supporting their assertion that su ch an approach will have little effect on smokers. No bills have yet been introduced.

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