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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Eyes Makeover for Tobacco Packs

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Justice Department wants to impose sweeping new restrictions on cigarette manufacturers, including banning the terms "low-tar" and "light" and eliminating cigarette vending machines. Tobacco companies are insisting only Congress can do that.

The government's proposal, contained in documents sent to tobacco companies, would also require that graphic health warnings cover 50 percent of cigarette packs and advertisements.

All cigarette advertising and packaging would have to be black-and-white and the companies would be prohibited from using in-store promotions, such as giveaways and rebates. Companies would also be required to pay for efforts to help smokers quit, including a toll-free "quit line."

Mark Smith, a spokesman for Brown & Williamson Corp., said the suggestions were preposterous.

"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," he said.

William Ohlemeyer, vice president and associate general counsel of Philip Morris Cos. Inc., said some of the restrictions would place unconstitutional limits on free speech. He also said the government lawyers were trying to legislate instead of litigate.

"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 administration of U.S. President George W. Bush inherited the three-year-old lawsuit from the Clinton administration. The lawsuit seeks to collect damages from tobacco companies for profits allegedly earned through fraudulent practices and to bar the companies from similar future behavior.

It is separate from the lawsuit brought against the industry by the states, which was settled in 1998 for $246 billion. The settlement included restrictions on advertising that might attract teenagers, including billboards and cartoon characters such as RJ Reynolds' Joe Camel.

Last summer, the Justice Department said it wanted to enter into settlement talks with the tobacco companies. Anti-smoking groups feared the administration was bowing to tobacco interests, but the talks went nowhere.

William Corr, executive vice president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, was cautiously optimistic about the Justice Department's latest proposal.

"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," he said.

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 regulate tobacco rather than have standards imposed by a judge. "But absent that, this will do," she said.

The FDA asserted its jurisdiction over tobacco and sought to crack down on cigarette sales to minors in 1996, but the Supreme Court later ruled the agency had overstepped its authority.