The tobacco industry renewed its campaign aimed at discouraging teenagers from smoking, but anti-smoking forces attacked the effort as a publicity stunt and a bid to head off tougher laws.

Brennan Dawson, vice president of The Tobacco Institute, said this week that a "multimillion dollar" national advertising program will offer parents educational materials to help dissuade their children from smoking."Young people smoke primarily because of peer pressure. We are addressing this directly with a major program to assist parents in reducing that peer pressure," Dawson told reporters.

About 50 million Americans smoke, and an estimated 390,000 Americans die each year from lung cancer, heart disease and other illnesses caused by smoking.

Six years ago and with much fanfare, The Tobacco Institute instituted a similar program to "Help Youth say `No' " to tobacco. However, since that time, smoking rates have remained level among U.S. teenagers, and have even risen among teenage girls.

"Reducing youth smoking cannot be accomplished by a single action. That's why the tobacco industry is tackling this problem on many fronts, " Dawson said.

However, Fran Du Melle of the Coalition on Smoking or Health - which represents the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association - called the campaign "little more than a clever smokescreen."

"If the tobacco industry were really serious about discouraging tobacco use by children, it would stop its constant barrage of advertising campaigns targeted at young people, such as the recent and ongoing `Camel Smooth Character' campaign, and its ongoing sponsorship of youth oriented activities such as rock concerts and women's tennis," Du Melle said.

Action on Smoking and Health, a legal advocacy group for anti-smoking forces, attacked the industry campaign as "a cynical attempt to head off even stricter legislation."

Nearly two dozen cities have passed laws banning the sale of cigarettes through vending machines. Action on Smoking and Health claimed the tobacco industry is trying to block the spread of such laws by promoting cigarette sales through vending machines in "supervised" locations like bowling alleys and restaurants.

"We would never tolerate the sale of alcoholic beverages, birth control pills for girls or even dirty magazines through vending machines, and we certainly shouldn't for a product which is far more dangerous to children than all of these combined," said John Banzhaf, executive director of the anti-smoking group.

Last session, Congress narrowly defeated a bill that would have limited cigarette ads to a pictureless, black-and-white "tombstone" format and would have banned cigarette sponsorship of events appealing to children.

Banzhaf said that "close call," coupled with recent bans on cigarette advertising in Canada and France, was the "real motive prompting the industry to eliminate the most glaring abuses, like cigarette billboards near schools and distribution of cigarettes at rock concerts."

Thomas Lauria, a spokesman for The Tobacco Institute, denied the industry's action is aimed at averting tougher restrictions on tobacco, saying Congress currently has no anti-smoking bills on its docket.

In addition, the industry's willingness to lobby in 11 states to raise the minimum age for cigarette sales to 18 "is certainly positive and concrete," Lauria said.


(Additional information)

- Cigarette samples will not be distributed in or on public streets, sidewalks or parks, except in places that are open only to people of legal age to buy cigarettes. Cigarette advertising on billboards must be at least 500 feet from any primary or secondary school or any children's playground.

- Placement of signs and educational material in all stores selling tobacco will provide information about the age restrictions on buying tobacco. The campaign's theme is "It's the Law."

- Support for new state laws that set a minimum age of 18 for cigarette sales, and that require supervision of cigarette vending machines located in places frequented by minors.