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Tobacco Maneuvers

June 24, 1996

On May 15 Philip Morris, the country's largest tobacco company, announced that it would join the national public-health effort to prevent children from smoking--provided that the Food and Drug Administration relinquish any plans to regulate cigarettes.

The company's self-regulation proposal purportedly aims to make cigarettes less appealing and less available to young people. It provides for implementation of such measures as stricter enforcement of minimum-purchasing-age requirements and the elimination of cigarette advertising in places where children are most likely to be exposed to it--near schools, for example, and on public transportation, at sporting events, and in publications geared toward children.

Many construe this campaign as an attempt by the tobacco industry to head off any further restrictive measures by outside authorities. If so, this would not (at least according to one Atlantic Monthly contributor) be the first time the industry has employed such tactics.

In 1965 Elizabeth Drew outlined the tobacco industry's up-to-then successful strategy of forestalling government regulatory action in the wake of the Surgeon General's 1964 announcement regarding the health hazards of smoking. Then as now, the tobacco industry offered to regulate itself in order to obviate the need for government intervention. Many of the restrictive measures that the industry agreed to impose upon itself at the time are remarkably similar to those now being proposed by Philip Morris.

Drew's article, "The Quiet Victory of the Cigarette Lobby" (September, 1965), characterized the tobacco industry's tactics for avoiding increased regulation as follows:

  • "accept the package label (the least alarming and most inconspicuous one possible) in exchange for protection against advertising requirements and state regulation. The industry would then give the impression of a sweet reasonableness, whereas a rigid position might bring more severe consequences. . . ."

  • ". . . 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 to be 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 industry's strategy temporarily prevailed. For a period of four years Congress divested not only itself but also state and local government of the authority to restrict or regulate cigarette advertising. Whether the industry's most recent attempt to preempt restrictions on its activities will fare as well remains to be seen.

    For more on the tobacco controversy:

  • Executive Decision: Smoking: A New Prohibition?

  • Flashback: Should We Outlaw Smoking?

  • Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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