Lithuania takes aim at smoking ads

  • 1999-04-01
  • Peter J. Mladineo
VILNIUS - The great tobacco advertising debate has claimed another battleground. The Lithuanian government is preparing to ban tobacco ads, while the media have formed their own powerful alliance to defend their essential source of income.

The government had previously stated its intention to ban tobacco advertising now, before the European Union outlaws such advertising in 2000.

Backed in the Parliament by the Lithuanian Center Union, the Lithuanian Association of Radio and Television asked the government not to rush with the implementation of anti-tobacco advertising laws and submitted a petition to the Parliament.

The document was signed by 13 media heads in Lithuania - a coalition few politicians would want to mess with - and called for the gradual implementation of tobacco restrictions combined with anti-smoking propaganda.

Seimas, the Lithuanian Parliament, blinked and agreed, instead, to discuss the issue later.

"There is an interruption of the discussion of this law until a working team can prepare a new project about implementing the tobacco advertising law," said Virginija Sukatiene, adviser to the Parliament's Committee on Health Affairs.

This working group will consist of four government members, three representatives from the association and three members from the Committee on Health Affairs.

The government team is headed by Arvydas Vidziunas, the Conservative MP who is one of the deputy chairmen of Parliament, and the media representatives are headed by Gintautas Babravicius, president of the Lithuanian Association of Radio and Television.

Babravicius maintains that advertising revenues are down and that Lithuania's media will not be able to sustain the blow dealt by an immediate ban. The association is not debating Parliament on moralistic grounds; its concerns are over the timing.

"We aren't discussing whether it's necessary or not to have restrictions on tobacco advertising but the economic aspects of it, because the situation in the advertising market now is difficult enough," said Babravicius. "There is only one source of income in the media, advertising."

First quarter revenues are down by 15 percent to 20 percent and, Babravicius reports, there simply is not enough cash circulating in the industry right now. "Payments between advertising agencies, clients and the media are very difficult," he said.

For the major media outlets, Babravicius says, a ban could be sustainable, but for smaller ones it would be damaging. The biggest impact would be absorbed by the outdoor advertising market, which gets 30 percent of its revenue from tobacco advertisements.

"If you keep in mind the Russian crisis and its influence on our economy, it's totally a catastrophe for them [smaller media]," said Babravicius.

The working group will have two weeks to prepare an implementation plan.

The association hopes that laws restricting tobacco advertisements would go into effect by the time Lithuania joins the EU. But its long-term strategy has more political overtones: "Our strategy is that the election is next year. That means it's necessary to discuss this," said Babravicius.

The anti-smoking movement is being led by the Christian Democrats, which is part of the coalition with the Conservatives. The two parties form an absolute majority in Parliament.

Feliksas Palubinskas, the other Parliament deputy chairman from the Christian Democratic Party, and a reformed smoker, explains that there is already a law on the books that restricts all tobacco advertising.

"The problem is that there is no agency which sees to it that this law is enforced," he said. "Now we are in the process of completing this process of making sure that the law is being enforced."

Palubinskas is undaunted by the media's subtle threats of disfavor. For him, the anti-smoking campaign smacks more of a crusade.

"It's a question of one good versus another good, one benefit versus another benefit," Palubinskas said. "Whether the industry's benefit should be a more desirable benefit than trying to minimize the adverse effect on human health, I think it is rather selfish on the part of the industry that advertising should continue to benefit while young people continue to become smokers and their health is affected.

"And of course Seimas has to make a choice. Our party says human health is more important than a particular industry's income. In fact the industry should be looking for alternative sources of income.

"We in Seimas have a responsibility to the public," he continued. "There is no doubt that smoking is dangerous to one's health, so we are not interested in young people picking up smoking, especially since smoking is not only harmful to individuals, but it is costly to society."

The Committee on Health Affairs estimates that currently 50 percent of men and 10 percent of women smoke in Lithuania, and that 7,000 persons in Lithuania die each year because of smoking-related illnesses. By 2005 the committee hopes to develop programs that will reduce the number of men who smoke by 5 percent, and stabilize the number of women who smoke. By 2010, it hopes to reduce the number of smokers - men, women and children included - by 10 percent.

The Christian Democrats are unlikely to be amenable toward delaying implementing the restrictions until better economic times.

"Actually, our party's view is that when the law was passed it should have been enforced. At that time there was no Russian economic crisis. So we look upon this argument that the Russian economic crisis is an excuse for not enforcing the law only as a convenient excuse," said Palubinskas.

Despite the large number of smokers in Lithuania, Palubinskas does not feel that this issue will have much impact on the electorate.

"I have my doubts about whether the public would get into this. If we tried to prohibit smoking, then I think there would be a reaction on part of the public. But I think this is about the advertising. It's the producers and the advertisers [who are complaining]."

Ultimately, this effort might escalate into a war. In Lithuania like other countries, the tobacco interests are powerful and well-endowed. "Political parties are receiving contributions from these interests. In fact that's why the Christian Democrats are so in favor of supporting political parties through public funds," said Palubinskas.