For the first time in more than 10 years, a serious move is under way in Congress to require stronger warning labels on cigarette packages and advertisements.
Two key Senate committee chairmen--Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) of the Labor and Human Resources Committee and Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) of the Commerce Committee--are preparing legislation to require new, sterner and more specific warnings about the health hazards of smoking.
The legislation also would require tobacco companies to rotate these stricter labels annually so consumers do not get so used to the warnings that they no longer notice them.
The senators had hoped to introduce the legislation today, the date of the American Cancer Society's Great American Smokeout, in which smokers are urged to give up cigarettes for a 24-hour period in the hope that they will quit for life.
But legislative drafting problems have caused a delay, and now legislative aides hope the measure can be introduced next week.
In the meantime, however, the chairman of the House subcommittee on health and the environment, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), already has introduced a similar measure and hopes to hold hearings next year.
Under both measures, the current label--"Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health"--would be replaced.
In its place would be five to six different labels with statements such as: "Warning: the Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking causes heart disease," "Warning: Cigarette smoking by pregnant women may result in birth defects or spontaneous abortions," or "Smokers: No matter how long you have smoked, quitting now greatly reduces the risks to your health."
Tobacco companies would be required to rotate these and other labels so that not all cigarette packages would bear the same label at the same time and a given brand would not carry the same message for more than a year.
Sponsors of this measure are more optimistic about the chances for its success than they are about other cigarette labeling measures that have languished in Congress after being introduced.
For one thing, "Its bipartisan support gives it strong momentum," Waxman noted. There is also strong support from the American Heart Association, which prepared a draft measure that serves as the basis of the legislation now being introduced, the American Cancer Society and a handful of other health groups.
However, Senate aides noted that the measure inevitably will encounter strong opposition from the tobacco industry, which in the past often has managed to block cigarette labeling legislation.
"It will be a bit of an uphill struggle, there's no doubt about that," said one Senate aide. The aide added that it may be difficult to get the measure enacted next year as Hatch and Packwood hope, especially given the amount of other, more pressing bills the Senate must consider.