The House yesterday passed legislation that would replace the 13-year-old health warning on cigarette packages with four alternating and more prominent warnings about the dangers cigarettes pose to smokers and their future children.
The bill, which passed by unanimous voice vote with few members of Congress present, represented a compromise between House members, health groups and the tobacco industry. It now goes to the Senate, where its fate remains uncertain in the few remaining weeks of the election-year session.
The bill had been held hostage for months by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), but House sponsors said yesterday that Helms had promised not to impede swift passage through the Senate. Late yesterday, however, there were new signs that other tobacco state senators, including Sen. Paul S. Trible (R-Va.), were still considering whether to block the bill's passage.
The new legislation would require that one of four different warning labels be placed on all cigarette packages and advertising every three months. The warnings would each begin with a "Surgeon General's Warning" to be followed with:
*"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."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the chief House sponsor of the bill, said 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." He added that the proposed new warnings would be about 50 percent larger "to increase their visibility."
The compromise was worked out last spring by Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) and other House members with representatives of the industry trade group, the Tobacco Institute, and the Coalition on Smoking or Health, which represents such groups as the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association.
The Tobacco Institute declined to comment yesterday on the legislation while it is before the Congress.
New cigarette labeling legislation had earlier been vigorously opposed by tobacco interests, but participants said that the compromise met the needs of both sides. It maintained the concept of new, more specific warnings advocated by the health groups, but was made more palatable to the industry by omitting references to addiction, death and miscarriage that raised product liability concerns. The labels also will be less visible than originally projected.
Gore called the tobacco industry's support a "progressive and courageous step" that might lead to a "more sympathetic hearing" in the Congress on other issues of concern to the industry.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) said he had assurances from Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a longtime champion of the bill, as well as from Helms that the bill would see "swift Senate action." Hatch, chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the ranking minority member, sent a letter to the Senate leadership asking to bring it up quickly.
Late in the day, however, a possible roadblock emerged when Hatch aides learned that Trible and others had placed a "hold" on the bill, which may prevent its immediate consideration. A Trible spokesman said that he and other tobacco state senators planned to meet to consider the issue.
Murray Jones, an aide to Helms, said "we'll take a look at it." He said the tobacco industry had met some of Helms' concerns by buying more North Carolina tobacco. Helms has repeatedly complained about the increasing problem of tobacco imports.
The administration, which has generally maintained a free-trade position, yesterday released a letter from President Reagan ordering the International Trade Commission to launch a top-priority investigation of tobacco imports to see if trade restrictions should be imposed. Helms aide Jones said the Reagan letter had "absolutely nothing to do" with congressional action on the cigarette labeling bill.