The Reagan administration's rapid retreat from its announced support of legislation to put stronger health warning labels on cigarettes followed a barrage of complaints to the White House from tobacco-state congressmen, congressional and administration sources said yesterday.
Aides to several members of the North Carolina delegation confirmed that they had voiced their concern in recent days. Among those who spoke out were Republican Sens. Jesse Helms and John P. East as well as Reps. Eugene Johnston III (R) and L. H. Fountain (D).
The renewed lobbying followed testimony last Thursday by officials of the Department of Health and Human Services who gave strong support to pending legislation to change cigarette-package warnings. Their testimony had been cleared in advance by the White House Office of Management and Budget.
On Tuesday, those same health officials, under OMB instructions, testified before a the Senate panel that the issue was still under study.
Administration sources indicated yesterday that in the five-day interim, some southern congressman had talked to top White House officials, including presidential political aide Edward Rollins, arguing that support of such antismoking legislation was inconsistent with Reagan's pledge as a candidate to end the "increasingly antagonistic" relationship between the federal government and the tobacco industry.
Others indicated that the issue also might have been taken to White House chief of staff James A. Baker III or presidential counsellor Edwin Meese III. The White House officials concluded that the issue should be given further consideration, sources there said. At a senior staff meeting yesterday, Baker reportedly announced that Cabinet secretary Craig Fuller would help coordinate the policy.
There was no indication late yesterday as to how soon the White House would complete the new review.
The turnabout surprised HHS officials, who learned late Monday that the expected approval of testimony supporting the tougher warning labels had been held up. An administration source indicated that HHS Secretary Richard S. Schweiker had "strenuously objected" and was able to get permission for his officials to voice general support for stronger health warnings, but not for the specifics of any legislation, before the Senate.
OMB spokesman Edwin Dale said yesterday that the testimony was "mistakenly cleared the first time by OMB" and that now there was "a position of no position." He emphasized that HHS had followed the appropriate clearance procedures in each instance, but "somebody here goofed."
Legislation that would place a variety of specific health warnings on cigarette packages--including the dangers of lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease and risks to unborn children--has been introduced by Rep. Henry Waxman, (D-Calif.) in the House and Republicans Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Bob Packwood of Oregon in the Senate.
The proposed legislation and other antismoking efforts in HHS have been vigorously opposed by the tobacco industry and its supporters in Congress as reminiscent of "Califanoism" in the Carter administration.
Johnston said yesterday that he had protested the original administration support of tougher warning labels. He indicated that Rollins called him Monday to indicate that the "White House was aware of my concerns" and that "I wouldn't have a problem" with what administration officials would be saying before the Senate panel Tuesday morning. He complained that the stronger health warnings had been pushed by "zealots down at the health department."