WASHINGTON – Cigarette manufacturers will no longer be able to get away with marketing gimmicks like labeling their butts "light" and "low tar" if the Justice Department gets their way.
The DOJ is proposing strict new provisions for cigarette pack labeling including requiring graphic health warnings on 50 percent of the label, which would have to be black and white only.
Advertisements would also have to be covered in warnings and in-store promotions for giveaways and rebates would be prohibited.
Under the rules, companies will have to pay for anti-smoking efforts, like a toll-free "quit line" for people trying to stop smoking. Justice would also like to ban cigarette vending machines, often seen as a means for underage smokers to get cigarettes.
Tobacco companies are calling the proposals absurd, insisting only Congress can make the rules.
"It's as if a group of lower-level bureaucrats got together in a back room and tried to dream up the most outrageous things they could ask for," said Mark Smith, a spokesman for Brown & Williamson Corp., manufacturer of 12 brands of cigarettes including Kool, Pall Mall Filtered, Lucky Strike, Capri and Viceroy.
Philip Morris vice president William Ohlemeyer calls the restrictions an unconstitutional impediment to free speech that demonstrates that the Justice Department is trying to legislate its way out of going to court.
"It's fairly absurd for the government to suggest they can use a lawsuit of this type to make these kind of requests," Ohlemeyer said. "If there's going to be regulation of Philip Morris or any other tobacco company, it ought to come from Congress."
The battle between the government and tobacco has been ongoing for several years. In 1996, the Food and Drug Administration tried to stop cigarette sales to minors, but the Supreme Court struck down the rule, saying the FDA didn't have the authority to create laws. Congress later prohibited cigarette sales to minors.
In 1998, the states settled a lawsuit with the tobacco companies for $246 billion that included restricting advertising toward teenagers including animated characters like R.J. Reynolds' Joe Camel.
The Clinton administration also filed suit against the tobacco companies, seeking damages for fraudulent practices. The Bush administration inherited the the lawsuit, which the Justice Department seeks to settle to the chagrin of anti-smoking groups
The talks went nowhere and now anti-smoking groups like what they are seeing from the latest Justice Department proposals.
"While the remedies appear to be strong, the devil will be in the details," said William Corr, executive vice president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "Any remedy must be comprehensive and free of the loopholes that the tobacco industry has always been so adept at exploiting in order to continue business as usual."
Cheryl Healton, president and chief executive officer of the American Legacy Foundation, an anti-smoking group, said she would prefer the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco rather than have standards imposed by a judge. "But absent that, this will do," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.