Bigger tobacco companies offer a deal on adolescent smokers

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: (Published 01 June 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:1380

The cracks in Fortress Tobacco widened further last month. Two tobacco companies, including America's biggest, proposed that the US Congress should pass laws to reduce the amount of adolescent smoking by banning sales from vending machines and by restricting tobacco advertisements and promotions.

The two companies are Philip Morris USA, the nation's biggest cigarette maker, and the United States Tobacco Co, America's biggest maker of chewing tobacco and snuff. Their proposal was multifaceted. Firstly, they would accept a ban on tobacco sales through vending machines—which make up about 9% of sales to young people (see table). Secondly, they would spend $250m (£165m) over the next five years to enforce the restrictions on adolescent smoking. Thirdly, they would also accept laws that prohibit promotional give aways of tobacco products. Fourthly, they would support a ban on tobacco advertisements on buses and trucks and would accept restrictions on billboard and sports advertisements and sports sponsorship. Finally, they would quit printing logos on clothing.

The plan included two caveats, however. Firstly that none of the proposals would apply outside America., and secondly that the government should take no further action to regulate sales to young people.

These two companies' proposals further demonstrate a weakening in the facade that the five major tobacco companies have steadfastly held up since the 1960s. In March the first chink appeared when the Liggett Group, the nation's smallest tobacco producer, announced that it would settle a lawsuit filed by at least five states claiming that the tobacco companies owed them for the health costs they have incurred. At least 14 more states are considering lawsuits.

But antismoking groups are refusing to cooperate. The White House, which has supported the Food and Drug Administration as it makes plans to regulate sales to children and teenagers, said the two companies' latest proposal “falls a little bit short.” President Clinton last year invited the tobacco companies to draw up restrictions on sales that would meet the goals of the Food and Drug Administration, but his spokesman said last week that the current idea “falls short of that mark.”

”This announcement is obviously a preemptive strike against the FDA,” said Richard Daynard, chairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. He said the proposal is an attempt to stop the Food and Drug Administration from promulgating rules that the tobacco companies will have no say in creating. Indeed, Steve Parrish, a spokesman for Philip Morris, said the proposals were contingent on the Food and Drug Administration removing its proposals to regulate the sale of tobacco, including its arguement that nicotine is addictive and therefore subject to regulation.

In Congress, even tobacco supporters give the idea little chance. Representative Thomas Biley, a Virginia Republican who supports the tobacco industry, said any move to accept the plan would be defeated by the minority Democrats, who will filibuster any bill that would deter the regulation of tobacco sales to young people.

Places where adolescents, 13 to 17, buy cigarettes

View this table:

About $2 billion (£1316m) worth of tobacco is sold through about 400 000 vending machines in America.—JOHN ROBERTS, North America

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