F.T.C. Urged to Take a Hard Line on Advertising of Snuff
Antismoking advocates in Congress opened an offensive against snuff makers yesterday, urging the Federal Trade Commission to derail the industry's attempts to promote chewing tobacco as a safer alternative to cigarettes and contending that its largest com
In a letter to Donald S. Clark, the secretary of the F.T.C., two Democratic opponents of big tobacco â€” Representative Henry A. Waxman of California and Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois â€” said the agency would be "acting outside of its authority" if it allowed companies to say that snuff poses fewer health risks than smoking.
In a separate letter, the two Democrats also urged the National Association of Attorneys General to investigate UST, contending that the company has violated a 1998 settlement with more than 40 states by increasing its advertising in youth-oriented magazines despite the agreement's prohibition on marketing to children.
The action represents a widening debate over whether tobacco companies can promise a reduced likelihood of cancer and other smoking-related illnesses when advertising alternatives to smoking. Four months ago, UST urged the F.T.C. in a petition to codify its claim that chewing tobacco or taking a pinch of snuff "involves significantly less risk of adverse health effects than smoking cigarettes."
Not only do snuff and chewing tobacco act as a "gateway drug" to cigarettes, the two Democrats and many health groups contend, but granting tobacco companies the authority to make health claims could suggest that the government thinks any form of tobacco use is safe. That is an especially thorny issue now because many of the largest tobacco companies are either developing, testing or rolling out so-called safer cigarettes, which have fewer toxins than their counterparts.
"The fear is that if the F.T.C. gets involved in this area, then they could set a precedent for approving other health claims," said Greg Connelly, tobacco control director at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which is asking the commission to block the petition. "The public health community is just standing up today to say, `You don't want to go down this road.' "
UST described the opposition as unfounded, particularly because its proposed advertisements would acknowledge the Surgeon General's conclusion, first promulgated in 1986, that "smokeless tobacco `is not a safe substitute for smoking cigarettes.' "
Beyond that, the company contends, its opponents offer little evidence to counter the assertion that snuff and chewing tobacco are, in fact, considerably less dangerous than cigarettes. And, as long as a statement is true, the company points out, the F.T.C. is generally not empowered to prohibit its use in advertising.
"Nobody's debated the accuracy of our claims," said Richard H. Verheij, UST's general counsel. "Fundamentally the question is, does that information get communicated to adults or does it get suppressed?"