House demands tougher cigarette warnings, while Boston bans giveaway packs

Groups aiming to snuff out cigarette smoking were cheered by two recent developments:

* Legislation providing tougher health warnings on cigarette packs cleared the US House of Representatives Monday.

* An ordinance banning the distribution of free cigarette samples on Boston street corners was signed into law Aug. 31.

The latter measure, which the tobacco industry terms ''unreasonable and unnecessary,'' is the sixth of its kind in the nation since 1979 and the second in Massachusetts this year.

But cigarette manufacturers are not fighting the compromise labeling bill shaped by US Rep. Albert Gore (D) of Tennessee, which now awaits Senate action.

It requires that cigarette packs and advertising billboards carry one of four different health warnings every three months. The rotating messages note the dangers of cigarette smoke and spell out specific diseases associated with smoking.

Negotiators for the Tobacco Institute, which represents cigarette manufacturers, rejected wording supported by antismoking groups that would state that ''cigarette smoking could lead to death.''

John Banzhaf III, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), is optimistic about Senate passage of the bill during this session. But he notes some possible roadblocks. Senators from from tobacco-producing states will have to be persuaded that the legislation would not have an adverse impact on the industry's interests, he suggests.

An aide to Sen. Jesse A. Helms (R) of North Carolina said that the senator wants to study the bill before making a decision and that he has promised not to filibuster.

Particularly pleasing to backers of the compromise is the joint lobbying effort that helped bring it about, involving health activist organizations including the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, and the American Cancer Society.

The use of rotating warnings on cigarette packs ''should help focus greater attention on the health hazards from cigarettes,'' Mr. Banzhaf says.

Similar teamwork in behalf of other smoking and health measures, such as restricting cigarette use in the workplace and in government buildings, ''could make a big difference,'' he adds.

Keeping the federal cigarette tax at 16 cents a pack, instead of letting it drop back to 8 cents as scheduled next spring, would tend to hold down smoking, especially among children, Banzhaf says.

Proposals similar to Boston's ban on cigarette sampler giveaways are being pushed by advocates on nonsmokers' rights in several other cities, including Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Worcester, Mass., according to Edward Sweda Jr., legislative secretary of the Group Against Smoking Pollution (GASP).

Tobacco industry representatives say the giveaways are a legitimate means of advertising. In 1979, tobacco companies spent about $64 million on the distribution on sample cigarette packs. That year, Minneapolis became the first place to enact a ban of such giveaways.

''It is great to see the public sector triumph over the tobacco lobby,'' Mr. Sweda says of the tough fight to win approval of the Boston City Council.

''Unrestricted distribution of tobacco products gives our children and teen-agers too much easy and cheap exposure to this health danger,'' Mayor Raymond L. Flynn observed in signing the ordinance, which carries a $200 fine for violators. The tobacco industry denies the giveaways are aimed at reaching children.

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