The Federal Trade Commission is set to vote today on a plan submitted by the major tobacco companies, which want four new health warnings to appear on cigarette packages simultaneously rather than rotated every three months.
The cigarette companies argue that rotating warnings quarterly, as ordered by Congress last fall, would be too expensive.
The legislation requires that by Oct. 12, one of four different warnings should be placed on all cigarette packages and advertising by cigarette manufacturers and importers every three months.
The law required the FTC to approve the cigarette makers' plans to comply.
The new warnings, each beginning with the legend, "Surgeon General's Warning," would state:
* Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and may complicate pregnancy."
* "Quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health."
* "Smoking by pregnant women may result in fetal injury, premature birth and low birth weight."
* "Cigarette smoke contains carbon monoxide."
Congress ordered that the labels be 50 percent larger than the current warning, which reads: "Warning: The surgeon general has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the chief House sponsor of the bill, said last fall that the "current warning label hasn't been revised in over 13 years and does not adequately reflect the extent of adverse health effects caused by smoking."
Waxman said that he opposes FTC approval of the cigarette manufacturer's plan, not because of the plan's substance but because it would violate the law passed by Congress in October.
"The cigarette industry is asking the FTC to approve a plan that the Congress specifically turned down in passing the act," Waxman said yesterday.
"The Congress was quite specific in limiting the discretion of the FTC at the industry's insistence," he said. "If the law needs to be changed, the Congress should do it legislatively, not the FTC."
The Tobacco Institute, based in Washington, argued that Congress intended the rotation to be at least quarterly, not precisely quarterly.
The method of printing individual cigarette packs with four different labels simultaneously is less costly than printing the packs with only one label impression that would have to be changed quarterly, a spokesman for the tobacco group said.
"Not only would it be less expensive for the cigarette companies, but it is the best way of getting information on all of the warnings out to the public," the Tobacco Institute spokesman said.
He added that a woman in the early term of her pregnancy might not see the pregnancy warning for several months under the quarterly rule, but under the industry proposal she could see that label sooner.