Dossier D.C.: Smoke Screen

The tobacco crackdown may prove to be a boon for ad agencies how many times have you seen it: president bill clinton, appearing both dutiful and fun-loving, chews sensuously on an unlit cigar. Even if he doesn’t inhale, the image is as enduring-and perhaps as seductive to teens-as Joe Camel. And there’s the rub. Even in the smoke-free Clinton White House, the glamour of tobacco prevails.
So do the tobacco perks. In the current federal budget, a $50 billion tax credit has been offered tobacco companies mired in the cigarette settlements. The government doesn’t love the tobacco industry like it used to, but it still cares.
Even the fire-and-brimstone public can get nostalgic: We remember the old days, when every movie star smoked, when cigarette ads were everywhere, when people relished that deep, delicious drag.
But times have changed. Tobacco companies and their ad agencies are now reviled for their role in nicotine addiction.
Ironically, while the Clinton administration is against legislating morality in other areas, it’s happy to make it as difficult as possible for adults, as well as children, to smoke or promote smoking.
The byzantine national crackdown on tobacco and its advertising is loaded with contradictions, yet it’s also an exercise in catharsis, a desire to cleanse our souls as well as our lungs of toxins. Ad agencies are being given a huge opportunity to shape and buy into that message, as hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for anti-smoking campaigns are allocated in the next few years.
“It’s a chance for agencies to create health messages rather than death messages,” says Kathleen Schey, legislative counsel for Action on Smoking and Health in Washington, D.C. Most important, millions will be spent on anti-smoking messages in the future-perhaps more than has ever been spent on cigarette ads each year.
Still, the once-touted national cigarette settlement is fraught with fatal flaws. Health advocates call the settlement lax. They want punitive damages included in the lawsuits and more power assigned to the FDA. Thus, the attorneys general of each state are hammering out individual settlements with their own regulations and ad restrictions.
A few weeks ago, Florida was the second state, after Mississippi, to reach an agreement. The Florida settlement requires cigarette companies to pay $11.3 billion to settle a smoking lawsuit brought by state officials. Florida has demanded some $200 million for anti-smoking messages, and tobacco producers have agreed to phase out cigarette billboards, mass-transit advertising and sports promotions.
The tobacco companies have also agreed to set up a $200 million escrow fund within the next 24 months. The money will be used for enforcement, media, education and other ad programs directed to underage users and potential users of tobacco, according to the terms of the settlement.
Moreover, no matter how harsh the ad restrictions negotiated by each state appear, they are not law. The decision to abide by the restrictions is voluntary on the part of the tobacco industry. The restrictions cannot be challenged on constitutional grounds.
Congress will have to make the national settlement law before challenges can be brought. That may never happen, said congressional sources. “These settlements will not be fought in the courts,” says Schey. “These are agreements in which each side is getting what it wants.”
Laurence Tribe, a Harvard professor who has worked for anti-tobacco advocates in the past, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that “the proposed restrictions on tobacco advertising would raise serious First Amendment questions if they were to be enacted into law.”
“We don’t quote our own lawyers anymore,” one lobbyist says. “We offer the opinions of the other side. If Tribe thinks they have a problem, they have a problem.” Thus, the settlement is a double-edged sword. It might appease anti-smoking advocates, but if it’s transformed into law, it will be subjected to constitutional challenges in the courts.
“What Tribe said is important,” says Jaffe. “There is a bright line between companies censoring themselves and the government doing it for them. What we try to do is see that in protecting kids, we don’t trample on the First Amendment.”
Some states, such as Massachusetts, are sensitive to both needs. Anti-smoking funds are paid for by cigarette taxes. Boston agency Houston Herstek Favat has handled the $12 million account administered by the state’s Department of Public Health for four years. Another $40 million is spent on community-based education.
Houston’s campaigns have added to the shop’s renown. Yet teen smoking in Massachusetts has increased, though less so than nationally, says Sean Fitzpatrick, representative for the department. By contrast, statewide adult smoking is down 20 percent since 1993.
Why the rise in teen smoking? Some social analysts say there’s a backlash against the anti-smoking movement among teens. They suspect advertising will have to be more tactical and target younger children to have any lasting impact.
“It’s not easy to do public service announcements that bring smoking down,” admits Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers. “When cigarette TV ads stopped, smoking went up.” The increase in teen smoking suggests that a barrage of anti-cigarette messages may have the opposite effect: making smoking even more alluring.
If an ad tells kids that smoking is bad, no matter how hip it is, some kids will see it as a reason to rebel. Self-destructive behavior, when paraded as flouting adult authority, is still cool.
Making it uncool is a big job, especially when, as Hillary Rodham Clinton noted in her syndicated column last month, 77 percent of all films in 1996 had scenes with smoking, as did every film nominated for best picture at the Oscars.
Clinton denounced films that “equate smoking with status, power, confidence and glamour.” She blames Hollywood, in part, for an increase in teen smoking, “despite the best efforts of parents and teachers to educate children about the dangerous effects of tobacco.” Advertising lobbyists will play a role in fulfilling Clinton’s wishes. In fact, the lobbyists have been pivotal in ensuring that the administration’s $150 million anti-drug campaign begins next year.
Many ad insiders are taking a wait-and-see approach. Joe Camel is now history, and fervent anti-smoking messages abound. States are fueling megabucks from cigarette companies into advertising funds. But will these much-touted settlements achieve the desired effect?
In fairness, not all smoking images are the result of insidious ads. Role models and celebrities are not altering their behavior. Will John Travolta or Kristin Scott Thomas stop their sultry on-screen smoking? Will Clinton stop fondling his cigars? Maybe Hillary is right. Despite the best efforts of parents, educators and even some advertisers, there’s a whole lot of smoking going on.