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Some TV Stations Drop Anti-Smoking Ad : Health: State-funded commercial shows tobacco executives testifying before Congress. R.J. Reynolds chairman has threatened libel action.


SACRAMENTO — Some California television stations, including KABC in Los Angeles, have dropped a state-funded anti-smoking ad after being threatened with a libel action by the chairman of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.--one of four top tobacco industry executives shown testifying before Congress that nicotine is not addictive.

In a letter to S. Kimberly Belshe, director of the state Department of Health Services, which paid for the commercial, lawyers for R.J. Reynolds Chairman James W. Johnston say that the ad falsely makes it appear that Johnston was lying to Congress.

Similar letters were sent to the 22 California television stations carrying the ad--one of a series in an anti-smoking education program paid for by a special 25-cent-a-pack cigarette tax approved by the state's voters in 1988.

The ad begins with top tobacco company executives taking an oath to tell the truth in their testimony before Congress.

In one brief sequence, Johnston is shown testifying: "Cigarettes and nicotine clearly do not meet the classic definitions of addiction. There is no intoxication."

Faintly in the background, the segment repeats the voice of the congressman who chaired the hearing saying the words "under oath."

After other executives also deny that nicotine is addictive, an announcer states: "Now the tobacco industry is trying to tell us that secondhand smoke isn't dangerous." Then appearing on the screen are the words: "Do they think we're stupid?"

In their letter to state health officials, Johnston's attorneys contend that the producers of the ad took "electronic liberties" in making the commercial. "The effect intended, and accomplished, was to suggest to the viewers that the words 'under oath, under oath,' were said at the hearing," they wrote. "The addition of these words creates the perception that Mr. Johnston committed perjury."

In a strongly worded response, Belshe denied that the ad defamed Johnston. She complained of heavy-handed tactics. "It has come to my attention that threats of legal action have been used in an attempt to coerce individual stations to remove these commercials from the air. This strong-arm tactic to subvert the intent of the voter-approved Proposition 99 media campaign constitutes an objectionable act of desperation."

In an interview Thursday, Belshe reiterated that the health department sticks by its ad. "We flatly deny allegations of defamation," she said. "The issue of the ads is not the veracity of any individual. The issue of the ads is the credibility of the tobacco industry."

She said the repetition of the words "under oath" was "an artistic device" not intended to be taken for what was said during Johnston's testimony.

KABC official Georgia Seid said her station's reasons for halting the commercial would have to come from Capital Cities-ABC in New York. But she confirmed that the station had asked the Department of Health Services to modify the commercial, which state officials refused to do.

According to department spokesman Kenneth A. August, station KBHK in San Francisco also dropped the ad.

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