Today in 1970: Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act is signed into law

April 1, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryOn April 1, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act into law.

The act was the first major government action in the U.S. to regulate tobacco, and marked the start of the era of negative public opinion of tobacco use.

The act effected changes that we now find commonplace.

Most prominently, it banned cigarette advertising on radio and television.

It also added the now famous warning, “The Surgeon General Has Determined That Cigarette Smoking is Dangerous to Your Health” to cigarette packaging and any print advertisements for cigarettes.

While tobacco regulation doesn’t seem as politically difficult nowadays, such was not the case 45 years ago.

The 1970 law was an indirect consequence of a 1964 U.S. Surgeon General report that found that lung cancer and chronic bronchitis are causally related to cigarette smoking.

While six years separated the publishing of the report and the passage of the bill, it wasn’t because Congress did nothing.

Congress originally passed a separate bill, the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, in 1965.

This bill, however, favored the tobacco industry more than regulated it.

It was passed to counter measures the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was going to take in response to the Surgeon General’s report.

US CapitolThe FTC had concluded that cigarette advertising was deceptive, and that the public was getting misinformation about the health effects of tobacco use.

As a remedy, the Commission proposed several changes.

First, that cigarette packages state the amount of tar and nicotine in the smoke of the cigarette which the package contains.

Second, that cigarette packaging and advertising must also attach a statement warning that “Cigarette Smoking is Dangerous to Health. It May Cause Death from Cancer and Other Diseases.”

The 1965 law, on the other hand, required the much weaker language, “Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health,” on cigarette packages.

It also provided protection to the tobacco and broadcasting industries by precluding the FTC and state and local governments from requiring any other label on cigarette packages and any warnings in cigarette advertising until 1969.

And that’s where the 1970 law comes in.

Industry lobbyists were eager to continue the ban implemented in 1965.  However, public opinion had swung sufficiently against cigarette use by this time.

While the 1970 act was not as stringent in its labeling requirements as the FTC wanted in 1964, it was a nightmare for broadcasting special interests.

Since then, tobacco regulation has only expanded.

In addition to favorable public opinion, it has found supporters from both the right – seeking to regulate vice – and the left – wanting to improve public health.

And that is what is so noteworthy about this regulation: it was accomplished in spite of massive lobbying efforts against it.

Such is a lesson for advocates of regulation of other forms of “vice”: gain enough public support, and find a common ground for both sides of the political aisle.