WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. health officials on Thursday sought to clamp down on the marketing of cigarettes to children and teenagers, issuing national limits on merchandise sales, event sponsorships and other promotions after a failed attempt more than a decade ago.
Under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules, tobacco companies such as Reynolds American Inc and Altria Group Inc’s Philip Morris could no longer use brand names to sponsor sporting and other events or to sell merchandise such as hats and T-shirts.
Free samples and vending machine sales would be limited to adult-only establishments, while advertising that may be seen by youth must be limited to black-and-white text, a contentious free-speech issue that had already been rejected by one court.
The rules “will help our kids stay healthy by making it harder for tobacco companies to target them with harmful and addictive products,” U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.
Officials last tried to curb tobacco marketing to youth in 1996. Those rules, issued under President Bill Clinton, were overturned when the Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the FDA had overstepped its authority.
Various U.S. states have also restricted some aspects of tobacco marketing under a 1998 settlement with the industry.
This time the FDA is moving under a new law giving it oversight authority. President Barack Obama, a Democrat who has struggled to stop his own smoking, signed the bipartisan bill last year.
The new authority already faces a legal fight from some manufacturers, including Lorillard Inc, in a case that could eventually go before the Supreme Court.
Companies argue the restrictions are unconstitutional, but a U.S. District Court judge in January backed most limits except for those regarding text-only advertisements.
Both the FDA and the companies plan to appeal.
Health officials say smoking is no longer on the decline.
Tobacco use, which had been falling over the years, is now flat, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 20 percent of older teenagers and adults smoke, and 6 percent of younger teenagers use cigarettes.
Smoking has long been known to cause cancer, lung disease and other expensive, chronic conditions that can lead to death. Second-hand smoking also poses threats.
U.S. officials hope that by curbing marketing efforts they can help prevent young people from picking up the habit.
Still, they face an uphill battle against an industry that according to the FDA spent nearly $13 billion in promotions in 2006, or roughly $35 million a day.
The new FDA regulations call on manufacturers and retailers to be responsible for carrying out the provisions, but FDA spokeswoman Kathleen Quinn said the agency still has a “full range of enforcement tools” such as warning letters and fines.
A spokesman for Reynolds, the second-largest U.S. tobacco company and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the company takes “no action directly or indirectly to target youth.”
Lorillard did not return a request for comment
Altria, which is not involved in the lawsuit and is the only tobacco company that backs FDA oversight, said its Philip Morris USA and U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company units were reviewing the regulations.
While the FDA said Thursday’s rules are mostly identical to those issued in 1996 with some added exemptions, more data has come out over the years backing the need for more controls.
It added that despite state laws preventing sales to those under age 18, cigarettes are still easy to obtain.
“Part of the reason is that despite a ban on direct marketing to young Americans, tobacco companies have still found ways to reach out to them,” Sebelius said.
Numerous consumer advocacy groups such as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the American Cancer Society applauded the new rules.
But Michael Siegel, a Boston University public health professor, said the government is wasting resources with rules likely to be overturned by the Supreme Courts and should instead launch its own ad blitz.
“There’s no mystery ... the way you reduce smoking is by aggressively advertising just like industry,” he said.
With smoking rates flat and increasing smoking bans in public places, companies such as Reynolds and Star Scientific are shifting to newer tobacco products in flavored, dissolvable formats that some worry may also entice children.
FDA officials are examining such candy-like products as well as the impact of mint-like menthol flavored cigarettes.
Reporting by Susan Heavey; additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Tim Dobbyn, Bernard Orr