WASHINGTON — Three cowboys thundering through a canyon swing their lassos over a dusty herd of horses. White hats shade rugged faces and red rock walls jut into blue sky. Superimposed on the sagebrush is a picture of a package of cigarettes--and a clear message: After a hard day on the prairie, these riders will be relaxing with a smoke.
Advertisements like this anger anti-smoking groups, which declare that such cigarette-puffing cowboys will soon be dying with their boots on--as will others who follow their example.
This summer, seeking to bury once and for all the romantic images created for cigarette smoking, a coalition of health groups has promoted a bill in Congress that would ban all advertising of tobacco products and restrict many other forms of cigarette promotion.
Unlikely to Pass
The bill, facing strong resistance on several fronts, is unlikely to be passed. Nevertheless, many officials say that the campaign has focused increased attention on the issue and it now appears likely that some stricter rules on cigarette advertising will be imposed in the next few years.
"This year was really the warm-up," said John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, an anti-smoking organization. " . . . There's almost a 50-50 likelihood" of some tobacco restrictions being passed by Congress next year.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House committee considering the bill, predicted that the issue would be a "very active" one in the next Congress. Options such as "equal time" anti-smoking ads and restrictions on the use of colorful images in cigarette ads are suggested by anti-smoking advocates.
Senses Change in Attitudes
"I think there's been a tremendous change in attitudes about this idea (of restricting tobacco advertising) in the course of a few months," Waxman said.
Restricting product advertising is not a new field for the federal government. Television and radio ads for cigarettes were prohibited in 1970. Also, federal law bans the general advertising of prescription drugs and allows ads for securities to appear only in the plain format of legal notices.
As proposed by Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), the new ban would prohibit tobacco product ads in any medium, distribution of free samples or sponsorship of athletic and other events under the brand name of a tobacco product.
The proposal was hotly debated in the last two months before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health and the environment, with most of the controversy focusing on arguments over freedom of speech rather than the health benefits that might result from a ban.
ACLU Opposes Ban
Such bans are "unwise" and "ultimately inconsistent with the principle of full and free presentation of information and opinion," American Civil Liberties Union attorney Barry W. Lynn testified in a hearing on Aug. 1.
Scott Stapf, spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, said the industry considers any restrictions to be unfair "government censorship" and says it will fight them vigorously.
The bill, stalled by the opposition, will be put on hold for this session and revived next year when there is more time to push such a measure through Congress, a spokesman for Synar said.
Although many anti-smoking lobbyists say they are determined to obtain an outright ban on advertising, Dr. Ronald Davis, a trustee of the American Medical Assn., said it is more likely that Congress will choose to continue its "natural progression" of gradual restrictions on the tobacco industry.
Restrictions Since 1965
Previous steps include the surgeon general's requirement of warning labels on cigarette packages, begun in 1965; the ban on broadcast cigarette ads and last month's prohibition on broadcast advertisements of smokeless tobacco products.
The provision for anti-smoking "reply time," similar to that required for political broadcasts, is one of the most frequently mentioned possibilities for a next step.
Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, testifying before the congressional subcommittee on Aug. 1, promoted this idea. "Those (cigarette advertisements) are statements. They are not discussion," said Koop, who has called for a smokeless society by the year 2000. "If you want discussion, give me equal space to run health messages. That will be discussion."
In a reply process, cigarette advertisers would pay for rebuttal advertising by the AMA or other organizations in the same publications in which their ads appeared or perhaps pay into a fund that would subsidize messages in the media of the anti-smoking groups' choice.
Banzhaf said that creating such a process would eliminate the "immense dichotomy" between the $2 billion the tobacco industry spends each year on advertising and the "trickle" of response that health-oriented groups can afford.
Restricting cigarette ads to displays bereft of colorful images, pictures and possibly slogans is also favored by some anti-smoking representatives and sympathetic lawmakers.