Dose of Stark Reality : A label and ad warning that tobacco 'can kill you' is amply justified

Are the health warnings that are required on cigarette packages and in cigarette advertising direct enough? Telling smokers and would-be smokers that tobacco has been unmistakably linked to a variety of diseases certainly meets the test of accuracy. Where it falls short is in the area of completeness. The whole of a terrible truth is left untold.

A product that has been found by a host of independent researchers and by successive U.S. surgeons general to contribute directly to nearly half a million deaths each year deserves to be identified plainly for the killer that it is. A bill introduced by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and backed by the Clinton Administration would come closer than ever before to doing just that. Smoking "can kill you," the proposed new warning would read. The virtue of that message is in its simplicity and unambiguous truthfulness. We hope it will begin showing up soon on cigarette packages and ads everywhere.

That chance could well be jeopardized, however, unless other provisions of the Waxman bill are dropped.

A key purpose of this measure, as U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders notes, is "to protect our children." The most effective way to protect young people from tobacco is by dissuading them from taking up the addictive habit in the first place. Blunt health warnings can help, both to get confirmed smokers to quit and to warn would-be smokers away. It's when the Waxman bill seeks to go beyond this effort that it strays perilously into the area of restricting free speech.

Thus it would prohibit sponsorship by tobacco companies of sports and other events unless anti-smoking information was distributed at such events by the sponsors. Similarly, it would require health warnings to be printed on T-shirts or hats or sports equipment, including race cars, that carry tobacco product trademarks. It's highly unlikely that this equal space requirement for what remains a legal product could survive a court test, even if it somehow passed scrutiny in Congress. Far better for now, we think, to stick to the tougher packaging warnings. Hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year are grim evidence of their necessity.

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