ARE the print media just blowing smoke about their commitment to warn people about the hazards of cigarettes? If smoking is so bad that it warrants admonitions against it in a newspaper's editorial columns, then why allow the tobacco industry to press its messages in the same journal's advertising space? Cynics are sure they know the answer: big revenue bucks; profits over principle.
But media officials insist that it's not the dollars at all. It's the First Amendment. If a product is legal - albeit offensive - its makers have a right to be heard, they say. Ergo, a right to advertise.
One tobacco company, Philip Morris, is so enthusiastic about this rationale that it is sponsoring an essay contest on how any advertising ban on its products would affect ``the future of free expression in a free market economy.'' The lure is a $15,000 grand prize and a host of state awards.
Philip Morris - maker of Marlboro cigarettes - admits it is responding to the American Medical Association's (AMA) call last year for a ban on all tobacco advertising except at points of sale.
However, Doctors Ought to Care (DOC) - an antismoking group - isn't about to let the Marlboro man ride on without a fight. DOC is hosting its own competition, primarily aimed at law students, and asking: ``Are tobacco company executives criminally liable for the deaths, diseases, and fires that their products cause?'' A more modest $1,000 will go to the winner.
Maybe there should be a third contest about whether the press could be held responsible in some way for carrying ads for products that might lead to illness, disaster, or death.
So far, most criminal liability suits against tobacco companies have failed. And if the manufacturer of the product can't be made to answer for the ill effects of advertising it, then it is highly unlikely that newspapers would be held liable for displaying such ads.
But the controversy over right of access - ignited by the proposed AMA ban - will certainly continue to smolder.
Antismoking groups, such as the Washington, D.C.-based Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), have lobbied - with considerable success - to restrict smoking on airplanes, in restaurants, in the workplace, and in certain public areas. This coalition had little real hope of a broad advertising ban, however, until last July when the United States Supreme Court - in a ruling upholding a state prohibition on casino gambling ads within Puerto Rico - appeared to be paving the way for such a media boycott of other services and products.
In a narrow 5-to-4 decision, written by the now Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the court said products or activities, such as cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, and prostitution, do not enjoy any constitutional protections and could be banned or strictly regulated. This ruling marked a sharp turn from a decade-long trend by the justices to expand protections of so-called ``commercial speech.''
Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr., in dissent, voiced First Amendment concerns. But the court determined that, at least in this case, government interest in the ``health, safety, and welfare of its citizens'' outweighed the free expression rights of casino owners.
Following this rationale, cigarette advertising in newspapers could very well be banned or restricted by Congress or the courts sometime in the future.
Actually, restraints are not new. By media agreement, ads for cigarettes have not appeared on television and radio since 1970. And federal law prohibits general advertising of prescription drugs.
Last fall, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives that would have prohibited tobacco ads in any medium, distribution of free cigarette samples, or tobacco brand-name sponsorship of athletic and other public events.
This legislation, however, was stalled by both the industry, which tabbed it censorship, and the American Civil Liberties Union, who said it was inconsistent with the ``principle of full and free presentation of information and opinion.''
It is almost certain that a similar bill will be presented again in 1987. And antismoking activists are predicting eventual passage as their cause gathers steam nationwide.
Meanwhile inconsistencies within the media are glaring.
Tom Goldstein, a lawyer and journalist who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, points out that many newspapers condemn smoking on their editorial pages for causing up to 500,000 deaths each year. But these same newspapers still receive a lion's share of more than $2 billion in advertising revenues annually from the tobacco industry.
Mr. Goldstein, in a just-released Twentieth Century Fund paper, stresses that (contrary to some popular notions) the press is not obligated by the First Amendment, by laws of unfair competition, nor by any other legal restrictions to carry advertising they don't wish to publish.
The answer, however, is not legislative or judicial bans on cigarette ads, he says. Instead, it should be voluntary restraint on the part of the media.
Many newspapers do have a history of turning down advertising that they deem morally offensive, in poor taste, or an affront to religion and widely held community values. And often this has resulted in the sacrifice of substantial advertising income.
Obviously such conscience is to be commended and encouraged.
``Publishers need to be reminded that, by foregoing revenues, their publications can make an unambiguous and valuable social statement that can have as much impact on a community as a hard-hitting investigative story or as an act of corporate philanthropy,'' says Goldstein.
A Thursday column