Tobacco Deal Gains Steam As Health Groups Warm to It

Support for the proposed big tobacco settlement is beginning to develop some momentum.

Public-health groups, after analyzing the $368 billion deal, are starting to endorse it as long as there are modifications. The tobacco industry is shifting its own positions to try to reach a settlement. And, the White House is nearing the end of a detailed analysis of the draft deal before it sends its own recommendations to Congress. President Clinton is expected to voice his own views before he goes on vacation Aug. 15.

The parade of public-health organizations staking out positions on the settlement will accelerate this week.

Today, the American Cancer Society is expected to endorse the agreement, as long as it has changes. Like most public-health groups, it argues against restrictions the deal imposes on the Food & Drug Administration and for tightening penalties on the tobacco companies if youth smoking rates don't fall.

"We think the impetus is swinging towards having the settlement go forward to the Congress," says William Novelli, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington.

The major naysayer continues to be the American Lung Association. Today, the ALA will hold a press conference with three advertising-industry executives to show the holes in the restrictions on advertising. As part of the deal, the tobacco companies have agreed to eliminate their use of cartoon characters such as Joe Camel and human figures.

"We have a lot of respect for our colleagues in the ad business and believe they will have no trouble dealing with these new limitations," says Dan Cohen, one of the participants in the press conference.

Mr. Cohen should know. In the 1970s, he worked on an RJR Reynolds ad campaign for its Salem cigarettes brand. Since the proposed guidelines were announced, he has had discussions with former colleagues who continue to work on tobacco accounts.

In addition, he points to industry attempts to produce ads that would meet the proposed regulations. Camel cigarettes, for example, have a new ad that uses a motorcycle in the background to present the image of excitement. "It's perfectly legal under the settlement, and you might say it's better than the Joe Camel ads," he says.

To prevent such ads, he proposes that the industry be limited to simply displaying the cigarette pack against a white background with no advertising copy allowed. In addition, he would bar any advertising in magazines that have at least 20 percent teenage readership.

Last week, advertising was also one of the concerns of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which wants to ban all tobacco advertising. Despite new restrictions, ads "can still make tremendous inroads" to make youths think tobacco is "cool, sexy or popular," says Robert Hannemann, the president of the group, which gave the plan qualified support last week.

Tobacco firms argue they have already made major concessions. "The industry on its own has agreed to end advertising and marketing as we know it," says a Washington-based spokesman for the industry. "The critics would seem to want an out-and-out ban on advertising."

Ads are a concern, but the major changes are likely to involve restrictions on the FDA. Under the proposed deal, if the FDA requires changes in the nicotine content of cigarettes, it must prove three things: that there won't be a significant black market in high-nicotine cigarettes; that the change is technically feasible; and that it will have a certifiable health effect. Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler insists these restrictions be removed. President Clinton has agreed.

If the White House signs off on an amended agreement next month, the proposal will go to Congress. Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi has indicated that Congress could consider the deal by the end of the year. However, hardly anyone expects that getting it through Congress will be easy.

"Congress is going to have a food fight over this. The White House and Senator Lott are the key," says Mr. Novelli.

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