Responding to intense opposition by tobacco and advertising interests, a key congressional subcommittee voted Tuesday to kill proposals by anti-smoking advocates to impose sweeping new restrictions on cigarette promotional campaigns.
At the same time, the panel passed a measure that would dramatically increase the prominence of warning labels on cigarette packages and billboards, ban sales to minors nationwide and restrict sales from vending machines and distribution of free samples.But proponents said that it appeared unlikely that further action would be taken on the bill this year unless Congress reconvenes after the November election. The poor prospects reflect a failed behind-the-scenes effort to reach a compromise between the $40 billion-a-year tobacco industry and its congressional foes.
Following an often-acrimonious debate, the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health and the environment voted 13-9 to squash a proposal to bar the use of human or cartoon figures in cigarette advertising. The measure would have allowed only ``tombstone' ads - written text with no illustration other than a picture of the cigarette brand.
The initiative was the most far-reaching provision of the ``Tobacco Control and Health Protection Act of 1990,' a compendium of anti-smoking measures sponsored by Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., the subcommittee's chairman. The provisions are intended to halt the marketing and sale of cigarettes to young people, 3,000 of whom begin smoking each day. Waxman and his allies maintained that limitations should be imposed on the industry's $3 billion annual advertising effort, particularly ads that portray smoking as sexy, sophisticated and linked to success.
Opponents, led by Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., R-Va., said that such curbs would represent an unconstitutional infringement of free speech.
The tobacco industry was joined by advertisers, billboard companies and newspaper and magazine publishers in lobbying to bury the ``tombstone' proposal. Waxman's entire bill, in fact, was rejected Tuesday in favor of a measure introduced by Rep. Bob Whittaker, R-Kan., another anti-smoking leader, as a compromise. In addition to deleting the tombstone restriction, Whittaker's alternative dropped a proposed ban on tobacco company sponsorship of sporting events and public entertainment.
The new measure would require that warning labels cover an entire side of a cigarette package, double the current size of warnings on billboards, prohibit sales from vending machines accessible to minors without adult supervision, and ban distribution of free samples on streets, sidewalks, public parks or through the mail.
The subcommittee defeated a far weaker industry-backed measure offered by Bliley. Waxman said that he would attempt to reinsert the advertising and promotion provisions into the Whittaker bill in either the full Energy and Commerce Committee or on the House floor. If a tough anti-smoking bill is not passed this year, Waxman said, he would reintroduce his original measure early in the next Congress.
Both sides claimed at least partial victory Tuesday.
``We beat the chairman back,' Bliley said, referring to Waxman. He added that Whittaker's bill, while still objectionable, ``is a lot better than Waxman's.' Matthew Myers, a prominent lobbyist for a coalition of leading public health groups, said that Whittaker's alternative measure would represent ``an important step forward' if enacted or as a vehicle to advance debate in the House.
At the same time, Myers, staff director of the Coalition on Smoking or Health, acknowledged, ``There is still a distance to go.'