Lawmakers Criticize Tobacco Firm's Plan To Curb Sales to Kids

Eliminate cigarette vending machines, advertising near schools, and tobacco marketing at sports stadiums. Who would have thought a tobacco company would make those proposals?

Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest cigarette manufacturer, is offering a series of curbs on the advertising and sale of tobacco. In return, the company wants to eliminate regulation by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). But the proposal appears to have caught the tobacco industry off guard, and some politicians and smoking critics - who say the initiative has significant loopholes - are fuming.

The company's plan comes at a time when the tobacco industry is under an assault of historic proportions, ranging from huge class-action lawsuits by several states to federal probes. The FDA is analyzing 700,000 separate filings regarding its own proposals to make it tougher on tobacco companies to sell cigarettes to children. And President Clinton incorporates tobacco regulation in campaign speeches.

Philip Morris says it, too, wants children to avoid smoking. "This initiative builds on our fundamental commitment to the propositions that minors should not use - or even have access to - tobacco products," said Steven Parrish, a Philip Morris vice president.

But antitobacco advocates are skeptical of the Philip Morris proposal. "This proposal looks good until you examine it carefully," says Matt Myers, spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. He says the most dramatic differences are in advertising and promotion.

Under the Philip Morris proposal, tobacco companies would not be allowed to advertise in publications where adults account for less than 85 percent of the subscribers. The FDA, however, would limit the ads on the basis of readership. Under the FDA rules, for example, tobacco firms would only be allowed to use tombstone ads (black and white ads with words only) in such publications as Sports Illustrated or Rolling Stone, which have low youth subscriber rates but high youth readership rates. Under the Philip Morris proposal, the industry could continue its color ads in these publications. "They know their proposal would have no significant impact on the use of the Marlboro man in newspapers and magazines," says Mr. Myers.

The health community did not totally reject the Philip Morris plan given that it contains some steps it wants. "If today is the starting point for discussions, the health community would be delighted to participate," Myers says.

But the FDA is skeptical. "Last summer the president made it clear that he welcomes a legislative solution as long as it is comprehensive and effective as the FDA's proposal," says Mitch Zeller, deputy associate commissioner for policy. "The Philip Morris proposal falls short of that mark."

REACTION in Congress was swift. Rep. Marty Meehan (D) of Massachusetts called the Philip Morris plan a "desperate" last-minute attempt to avoid regulation. "Now, just before the federal government is going to enact regulations that will prevent such advertising, Philip Morris wants us to believe that it has seen the light," said the congressman. However, Rep. Thomas Bliley Jr. of Virginia hailed the voluntary effort. But he observed that the legislative aspects of the plan have little chance of passage, especially in the Senate.

And Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey reaffirmed his commitment in a statement that said, "If any legislative attempt is made to hamstring the FDA or federal efforts to reduce teen smoking, I will use all of my rights available to defeat it, including extended debate and the offering of numerous amendments."

The Philip Morris proposal appears to have caught the tobacco industry by surprise. Cigarettemaker Brown & Williamson of Louisville, Ky., released a statement saying it is studying the initiative "to ensure that our constitutional right to communicate with adult smokers is protected."

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