The Quiet Victory of the Cigarette Lobby: How It Found the Best Filter Yet—Congress

A Cincinnati-born, Wellesley-educated magazine writer and author of children's plays, Mrs. Drew lives in Washington with her lawyer husband and writes as a freelancer. A former staff member of the Congressional Quarterly, she has had ample opportunity to study that Americanized Byzantine process by which the United States Congress deals with issues before it.

Before the FTC ruling appeared, the industry had to decide whether to fight it in the courts or to seek relief from Congress. Guessing--correctly--that Congress was a surer thing (and a court test could always come later anyway), that is where the industry went. Clements is credited with persuading Oren Harris, chairman of the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, to hold hearings in mid-1964 on the question of cigarette regulations, even before the FTC announced its decision later that June.

As the hearings ambled into the late summer and time for going home to get re-elected neared, the committee asked the FTC to delay the effect of the rulings, since Congress would not have time to act by the end of the session. The labeling ruling was to have gone into effect on January 1, 1965, and the advertising ruling six months later. The FTC complied with the committee's request, pushing the effective date for both regulations back to July 1. Thus the stage was set for this year's fight.

The normally fiercely competitive tobacco companies had long since learned to practice brotherhood when their economic interests were at stake. In 1954 in the face of major studies suggesting a link between smoking and disease, tobacco manufacturers, growers, and warehousemen, under the guidance of Hill & Knowlton, a major public relations house, established the Tobacco Industry Research Council (since renamed the Council for Tobacco Research--U.S.A.). This group has handed out over $7 million in research funds, a good bit of which has produced studies showing other causes of cancer and heart disease besides smoking. In 1958 the tobacco manufacturers established another organization, the Tobacco Institute. The institute ordinarily speaks for the industry and regularly issues a bulletin called "Reports on Tobacco and Health Research," which shows a remarkable facility for ferreting out research indicating causes of lung and heart disease other than smoking. Some examples from one issue: "Miners' Lung Cancers Triple Average"; "Rare Fungus Infection Mimics Lung Cancer" ("well nigh impossible to differentiate clinically"), and so on. Another issue duly reported evidence that charcoaled beef was conducive to cancer, just after the Surgeon General's report came out, it was announced that the six major companies were giving $10 million to the American Medical Association for research into smoking and health.

The industry's togetherness, as well as its careful preparation for the battle against regulation, was also apparent when it was announced with much ado in the spring of 1964 that the industry would embark on "self-regulation" in cigarette advertising, to cut the appeal of the ads to children and to stop saying or implying that smoking is good for the health. No longer would cigarette ads be placed in college newspapers or comic books; no longer would there be testimonials by noted athletes (but athletic programs were still sponsored); the virile young men and sweet young things who light up on television ads would have to be twenty-five; and there would be no advertising on programs "primarily" aimed at children. The regulations were drawn up by the same lawyers' committee that was preparing for the fight in Congress.

The exact strength of the tobacco industry itself in Congress--that is, the number of members in each chamber from areas heavily dependent on tobacco growing, distributing, and processing--is difficult to gauge and largely irrelevant. The tobacco people claim that some twenty-one states and 700,000 farm families are involved in the industry, undoubtedly counting states and farms where tobacco growing is of minimal importance. Whatever the claims of the companies, the figures on the place of the tobacco industry in the American economy are impressive: In 1963, Americans spent over $7 billion on cigarettes, buying 510 billion of them, or 4350 for each person over eighteen (as compared with 3500 in 1950). Each year the federal, state, and local governments take in at least $3 billion in taxes on the sales of cigarettes alone. And tobacco companies currently spend over $250 million on advertising.

On an issue of such importance to some of its members, the entire Southern congressional bloc will tend to stay together. In addition, because federal regulatory power over a large industry was at stake, a healthy percentage of the Republican members were natural allies for the Southerners on this issue. The fact that a requirement of a warning in cigarette ads might curtail cigarette advertising and therefore cause a considerable loss of revenue for the broadcasting industry influenced still more members. The National Association of Broadcasters submitted statements firmly opposing any advertising regulation ("a substantial expansion of the role now played by government could seriously impair the effectiveness of industry self-regulation by undermining incentive"), and the broadcasters are understood to have been doing their own contacting while the bill to overturn the FTC was moving through Congress. Congressmen are particularly sensitive to the viewpoint of local station owners, and they were aware of where the broadcasters stood.

Whatever there was of the other side was simply no match for this array of forces. Within the executive branch, the Public Health Service had to go it alone. The PHS did its best, however, to rally around itself what friends it had. Shortly after the Surgeon General's report came out, the PHS, the Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the National Tuberculosis Association, the American Public Health Association (comprising public health workers across the country), and a number of other private health groups formed an unusual federal private body called the National Interagency Council on Smoking and Health. The AMA was not among the health-oriented groups which joined up. What testimony there was on the side of putting the FTC regulations into effect was better presented because of the council, and, more important, the council informed state health societies and doctors about what Congress was actually doing and stirred up a number of letters and telegrams to congressmen, urging them to hold fast for the advertising rule.

These efforts had some effect on the waverers. But the PHS was hurting from lack of true friends in Congress, an institution that has developed over the years a curious bifocal view of health issues. The lawmakers enthusiastically vote hundreds of millions of dollars--more, usually, than is requested--for health research, for when it is simply a matter of research, what congressman is against health? However, when the health officials go to Capitol Hill with proposals to put research findings into effect--to curb air pollution or discourage smoking--they are the skunks at the lawn party. For on these issues there are large economic interests at stake.

The tobacco strategists correctly deduced that the focal point for the fight to overturn the FTC would be the Senate Commerce Committee. The full Senate and the full House could be expected to follow the lead of the committee reporting out the bill, for both committees preside over legislation which affects a wide range of commercial interests and therefore have considerable leverage in their respective chambers. ("Everybody and his dog has business before those committees at some point," says one Hill aide.) The House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, heavily laced with Southerners and conservatives, would be no problem; it could be expected to report out a bill requiring the label but forbidding, permanently, the FTC to require health warnings in cigarette ads. This would put the industry in the strongest possible position for bargaining with the Senate.

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Elizabeth Drew

Elizabeth Drew is a writer based in Washington, D.C. The author of 15 books, she is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and a former Washington correspondent for The Atlantic and The New Yorker.

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