One federal judge followed by nine Supreme Court justices equals two encouraging rulings. Last week a federal judge in Greensboro, N.C., upheld the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) authority to regulate tobacco. This week the Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to Baltimore's bans on billboard ads for cigarettes and liquor.
The Greensboro decision came none too soon. As anti-tobacco advocates point out, it sends a clear signal that, yes, tobacco is a drug and should be regulated as such. People who choose to smoke should be fully informed about the product they're using, and manufacturers should be responsible for that disclosure.
The ruling is promising, too, in that it strengthens the hand of the attorneys general and plaintiff lawyers who, having sued the tobacco makers for the cost of medical care to smokers, are determined to make broad FDA regulation part of ongoing settlement negotiations.
But the government can't claim total victory. The federal judge, William Osteen, said the FDA lacks the authority to restrict advertising and promotion. That's disappointing, considering that what the government is trying to do is to ensure that children and teenagers aren't bombarded by images inducing them to buy tobacco products illegally. The FDA has proposed forbidding cigarette brand advertising at sporting events, on T-shirts and billboards within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds, and in magazines likely to be read by teens. President Clinton has said the government would appeal the part of the ruling on advertising and promotion.
The Supreme Court decision, while not affecting the North Carolina ruling, may be an indication that the high court would be willing to accept some limitations on advertising "if government has a substantial interest," as it said in a 1980 ruling. That interest could be - and should be - protecting children from addictive substances. That's what the Baltimore ordinances set out to do, and that's what the government wants to do too. It's a worthy goal.