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Tobacco Industry Ads Back Settlement

Health: Huge new campaign purports to present 'just the facts' about deal pending in Congress. But some crucial points are omitted.

March 11, 1998|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The tobacco industry today launched a massive nationwide advertising campaign to promote the settlement now pending in Congress.

Using a text-only format, the ads purport to give television viewers, radio listeners and newspaper readers "just the facts" about the tobacco deal that the industry is seeking.

However, the fine print, although largely accurate in what it says, leaves out some crucial points. For instance, although individuals would still have the right to sue the tobacco industry under the settlement--a point made twice in the print version of the ad--only one individual plaintiff has ever won an anti-tobacco lawsuit, and that judgment is on appeal.

"We think people need to know what's in the proposed [tobacco] resolution," said Steven C. Parrish, senior vice president for corporate communications at Philip Morris Cos., one of the top four tobacco companies in the United States.

The ads start running in major newspapers today and will be on television and radio by the end of the week. The campaign--sponsored by Philip Morris, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Lorillard Tobacco Co.--will run as long as the firms think it is useful, said Parrish, who would not disclose how much is being spent.

The ad blitz comes at a crucial moment for the tobacco companies. Congress is just beginning to write legislation that would create a new regulatory regime for the industry, which likely would determine its future profitability.

The outline of the deal sought by the industry was reached last June by 40 state attorneys general and the industry's lawyers. It would protect the industry from the most expensive types of lawsuits--class-action suits brought by groups of smokers and suits brought by governments for reimbursement of the costs of treating people with tobacco-related illnesses.

In exchange, tobacco companies would give up their 1st Amendment right to advertise their products.

The industry's primary goal for its ad campaign is to explain to people that even though some types of lawsuits would be banned, individuals could still sue.

"There's still a lot of misunderstanding on the civil liability provisions," Parrish said. He said the ads are based on polling results indicating that when people understand the whole settlement package, they like it.

Other elements of the proposed settlement can be enacted by Congress without the industry's consent. They include increased funding for smoking-cessation programs, strict oversight of tobacco products by the Food and Drug Administration, an increase in the price of cigarettes, additional restrictions on secondhand smoke and, in the absence of an outright ad ban, some advertising restrictions.

The White House, which is engaged in its own massive public relations campaign to promote stricter regulation of the industry, said the ads merely deflect attention from the central problem--the industry's efforts to hook children on cigarettes.

"If the tobacco industry wants to do itself some good, it should stop advertising to kids," said Bruce Reed, director of the Domestic Policy Council. "The only thing you can say about this campaign is it's not as bad as Joe Camel," he said, referring to the notorious cartoon figure recognized by children as young as five as a symbol of smoking.

Anti-smoking lawmakers questioned the timing of the ad campaign, as documents particularly damaging to the industry are being fought over in a trial in Minnesota.

"Their timing is awfully bizarre," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles). "We're hearing about documents that they are fighting to keep secret that [show] they were knowingly and recklessly exposing millions of Americans to a deadly danger."

"They are saying in effect: 'We'll stop doing what we're doing but give us special treatment that no other industry has: protection from accountability, responsibility and legal liability,' " Waxman added.

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