Joe Camel is Dead, His Spirit Lives

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Joe Camel was put to rest 18 months ago, but Big Tobacco's practice of targeting youth may be alive and well. Since the 1998 tobacco settlement in which tobacco companies agreed to stop advertising on billboards and using Joe Camel-type ads that target kids, the number of young people reached by tobacco advertising is reported to have actually increased, raising hackles among state attorneys general and members of Congress. The result: an investigation of tobacco companies, and five bills making their way through Congress.

The attorneys general are investigating tobacco companies, including Marlboro, Philip Morris, Brown & Williams, for allegedly violating the intent of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between the major companies and 46 states, in which the companies agreed to avoid marketing to minors by changing the appearance and placement of tobacco ads. Though no longer appearing on billboards, ads in magazines popular among young people seem to be reaching high numbers of youths.

According to the advertisement research groups Simmons Market Research Bureau and Competitive Media Reporting, Camel cigarettes ads reached 65 percent of teens 12- to 17-years-old at least five times in the first three quarters of 1998 (before the agreement was signed) - and 77 percent in the first three quarters of 1999, after the agreement was signed.

Philip Morris and Brown & Williams may be violating a voluntary pledge they made but are not legally bound to. Proving guilt appears to be a matter of numbers and semantics. Numbers produced by market research firms (such as Simmons and Mediamark Research, Inc.), the American Legacy Foundation (a nonprofit set up with settlement funds to study youth tobacco use) and the Massachusetts Department of Health indicate that the two companies are not following the "the 15 percent rule."

That refers to a rule issued in 1996 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which said any tobacco ad in a magazine with an under-21-year-old readership of at least 15 percent had to be limited to black and white, and be text-only. The FDA rule never took effect and was struck down by the Supreme Court last March.

The Massachusetts Health Department reports that in the first three quarters after the settlement agreement was signed, 19 magazines with at least 15 percent youth readership had a 33 percent increase in tobacco ads.

Tobacco companies, however, debate the definition of "readership." Demographic figures from advertising agencies show that several magazines with many cigarette ads also have a teen readership well above 15 percent. But the magazines themselves, such as Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated (for whom tobacco advertising makes up a large portion of their revenue), define "readers" as paying subscribers. That puts teen "readership" rates below 15 percent.

Anti-smoking coalitions have pressed state attorneys general and members of Congress to investigate and take action. Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said last month at a press conference (held with the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association) that "the tobacco industry's marketing to our children will not be stopped without the type of detailed rules included in the FDA's 1996 tobacco rule."

Although the Supreme Court determined that the FDA did not, under current law, have the authority to regulate tobacco, several bills in Congress would grant the FDA just that power. One bill, sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), is modeled after a 1998 bill sponsored by Sen. William Frist (R-Tenn.), which failed to pass. Other pending bills to grant the FDA authority to regulate tobacco advertising aimed at minors are sponsored by Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and Tom Harkin(D-Iowa), and Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Greg Ganske (R-Iowa). Sen. Frist has sponsored a new bill, which differs from his 1998 bill in ways that attempt to win wider support. Ironically, anti-tobacco groups are lobbying against it, saying it is too weak.

- Amy Bracken