HEALTH WATCH : Smoke Screen

Striking a blow for public health, the Justice Department has reined in Philip Morris, the giant cigarette manufacturer.

The tobacco company had been circumventing the ban on television advertising by strategically placing massive billboards within the range of cameras televising baseball, football, basketball and hockey games. The placement of the ads was no coincidence.

Philip Morris negotiated, for example, with Madison Square Garden to put an electronic ad of its Marlboro Man near the scorer's table and within easy camera range. The tobacco company expected the courtside ad to be broadcast three or four minutes a game. Another Marlboro sign is located near the scoreboard in Anaheim Stadium. That means millions of dollars in free TV advertising for a product that, by law, isn't allowed on the air.

Congress wisely banned cigarette advertising on television nearly 25 years ago. That was shortly after the U.S. surgeon general linked smoking with lung cancer, a fact that tobacco company executives continue to ignore.

The Justice Department accused Philip Morris of breaking that law and threatened a lawsuit to uphold the broadcast ban. That led to months of negotiations. Although the agreement must be approved in federal court, Philip Morris has agreed to "reposition" the Marlboro Man and other prominent billboards away from direct range of cameras at major sporting venues.

Cigarette advertising is legal at ball parks, arenas and stadiums. But, as the Justice Department insists, such ads do not belong on television.

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