The embattled American tobacco industry yesterday announced a new set of sales and marketing initiatives to discourage cigarette consumption by minors. Antismoking groups immediately denounced the effort as a hypocritical public-relations bid designed to preempt growing public and congressional concern.
"A drop in youth smoking is what we're after," said Brennan Dawson, vice president of The Tobacco Institute, the principal industry trade association. "If another child never picks up a cigarette, that's fine with us."
Dawson described the new measures, which will entail "multimillion-dollar" expenditures on projects to restrict sales and marketing to minors, as an effort "to respond positively to criticism raised by some members of the public about cigarette advertising and promotion." Recent complaints have focused on cigarette advertising targeted at young women or blacks, as well as on ad images that critics say are designed to appeal to youth.
The institute has had a similar program, called "Help Youth Say No," in operation for six years. During that time the rate of teenage smoking has remained level at approximately one in five high school seniors, according to industry surveys. Yesterday antismoking activists questioned whether the new programs would make a difference.
"What they're recommending will have very little effect on sales and use of their product," said Scott Ballin, vice president of the American Heart Association. "It's typical industry rhetoric of the sort that tends to turn up when there is a serious likelihood of legislation and regulation."
In the next Congress, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) are expected to reintroduce bills that would drastically curtail cigarette advertising, call for regulation of tobacco additives, restrict vending-machine sales to adult-only locales and prohibit the use of specific brand names in sponsorship of sports events.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan, who has attacked the cigarette industry's promotional practices several times, called the institute's announcement "little more than a smokescreen to camouflage their own marketing activities."
Dawson said the industry initiatives will begin this month and take three forms.
First, the industry announced new guidelines for promotion and marketing, including "sharp limits" on free samples of cigarettes, a requirement that billboards advertising tobacco products must be at least 500 feet from schools or playgrounds, and support for state and local laws requiring supervision of vending machines. The guidelines also formally prohibit the prevalent practice of paying filmmakers for placement of product logos in movies.
Second, the institute will begin a campaign to encourage compliance with state and local laws governing cigarette sales. It said it will distribute signs, decals, stickers and sales-force lapel pins to retailers. The materials will be distributed free to stores and bear the slogan "It's the Law: We do not sell tobacco products to persons under 18." The institute also announced that it will support minimum-age legislation in the 11 states that do not now regulate tobacco purchases by minors.
Third, the institute said it will begin national distribution of a free 18-page glossy brochure titled "Tobacco: Helping Youth Say No," designed to help parents discourage their children from smoking. The brochure, which devotes four sentences to health issues and does not mention the risk of specific diseases, centers on how parents can aid children in resisting peer pressure. "A warm and trusting environment," the brochure advises, "fosters an open dialogue for examining the complex issues surrounding tobacco use." The minimal treatment of health matters, Dawson said, reflects the fact that the "association between smoking and heart disease and lung cancer" is now well known to children.
The industry stopped short, however, of halting its controversial sponsorship of sporting events such as the Virginia Slims tennis tournaments.
The Coalition on Smoking or Health, a joint effort of the American Lung Association, American Heart Association and American Cancer Society, said the campaign was "designed more for publicity than to effectively discourage tobacco use."
"If the tobacco industry were really serious about discouraging tobacco use by children," coalition spokesman Fran Du Melle said, "it would stop its constant barrage of advertising campaigns targeted at young people, such as the recent and ongoing 'Camel Smooth Character' campaign, and its ongoing sponsorship of youth-oriented activities such as rock concerts and women's tennis."
The initiatives are unlikely to have a major effect on tobacco-company revenue, since exports are the fastest-growing segment of industry profits. In the United States, unit sales have been falling more than 2 percent a year for the past several years, but one in five Americans still smokes. "Fifty or 55 million people," Dawson said, "is plenty for us."