Experts Question Plausibility of Pact’s Aim To Curb Youth Smoking

By Jessica Portner — July 09, 1997 3 min read

‘A Bitter Pill’

The lengthy settlement agreement, which was hammered out by the nation’s largest tobacco companies and the attorneys general of 40 states, is now being reviewed by a newly created White House advisory panel chaired by U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala. The panel is expected to present an analysis of the agreement and make recommendation to President Clinton later this summer. The accord also requires congressional approval.

Although the agreement calls for reimbursing states more than $368 billion over the next quarter-century for the public-health costs of smoking-related illnesses, and for conferring regulatory authority over tobacco product on the federal Food and Drug Administration, it is the tobacco companies’ pledge to launch an unprecedented campaign to eliminate youth smoking that has raised the most questions among educators.

In exchange, lawmakers would establish a moratorium on scores of potentially costly smoking-related lawsuits filed against the tobacco companies.

Under the plan, the tobacco industry would spend $500 million for an anti-smoking education campaign targeted at youth and adults.

The companies also promised to end cigarette advertising on billboards and outdoor signs and to remove human images and cartoon characters from cigarette ad and promotions. Put into action, the policy would mean that Joe Camel, the cartoon mascot for Camel cigarettes that has infuriated anti-smoking advocates who claim the campaign targets young consumers, would be obliterated.

In addition to the ban on Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man, the Internet, movies, and television would be off limits to tobacco-product promotions, according to a summary of the settlement.

The arrangement also stipulates that the industry establish a nationwide licensing system that would help monitor whether retailers were complying with the federal and various state laws against selling tobacco products to minors. It would also raise the penalties for violating the laws.

All of these efforts are aimed at reducing youth smoking rates 30 percent in five years, 50 percent in seven years, and 60 percent in the next decade. If those goals were not met, the tobacco companies would be obligated to pay $80 million a year for each percentage point they fell short.

One loophole, however, is that tobacco manufacturers could appeal the penalty if they could persuade the FDA that they were making a “good-faith effort” in reaching the target.

‘A Bitter Pill’

While it’s unclear how--and exactly when--these anti-smoking projects would be implemented, child-health advocates have already declared the settlement a great gain for children.

“This is a watershed and a major opportunity for the country and for the public-health community,” said William D. Novelli, the president of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, based in Washington. “If we can hit the targets, we can save 1 million kids from premature death. The public-health payoff potential is huge,” Mr. Novelli said.

While anti-smoking activists generally celebrated the event, the tobacco companies involved in the bargain called the proposed settlement a “bitter pill.”

“Negotiation of this size create compromise, not perfection,” said a statement jointly issued by Phillip Morris Inc., the R.J. Reynold Tobacco Co., the Brown and William. on Tobacco Corp., and the Lorillard Tobacco Co. “But on balance, this plan is preferable to continuation of decades-long controversy that has failed to produce a constructive outcome,” the statement said.

Some political observers who object to the deal are already advising Congress to refashion it.

Robert Levy, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank based in Washington, argues that holding tobacco companies accountable for reducing adolescent-smoking rates is inappropriate.

“It’s like holding General Motors responsible if a teenager takes his father’s car out for a joyride and gets a speeding ticket. It’s misplaced responsibility,” he said.

Mr. Levy and others also worry that the settlement’s advertising restrictions will eventually lead to more government regulation of other legal products, “Tobacco is the first and the easiest victim and just the tip of the iceberg,” Mr. Levy said.

A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week