Three years after rejecting claims that the controversial Joe Camel cigarette ads are targeted at children, the Federal Trade Commission revealed Wednesday that it has new evidence in the case and that its investigators are once again urging a complaint against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Camel’s maker, for unfair advertising.
The disclosure revives one of the most bitter controversies in the nation’s cigarette wars and comes as yet another blow to the beleaguered cigarette industry. Last week, another manufacturer, the Liggett Group, admitted that nicotine is addictive and that the industry markets to underage smokers in an historic legal settlement.
The FTC, which enforces truth-in-advertising laws, declined to say what new evidence has become available. “There is new evidence from 1994,” said Victoria Streitfeld, the agency’s spokeswoman. “I cannot talk about what that is.”
But experts in tobacco litigation said the Food and Drug Administration’s effort to regulate cigarette advertising, as well as state lawsuits against the industry, have recently yielded confidential documents that could bolster an FTC case against Reynolds, the nation’s second-largest cigarette manufacturer.
“There are internal documents that have come out that indicate R.J. Reynolds had begun in the early 1970s to become extremely envious of Philip Morris because Marlboro had a lock on the kiddie market,” said Dick Daynard, a tobacco litigation expert at Northeastern University in Boston. “They show how deliberately RJR was planning this campaign and that they certainly knew that their future depended on getting kids to smoke their brands. And then Joe Camel appeared on the scene.”
Reynolds, for its part, is defending its cartoon dromedary, saying that there is “no basis to file a complaint against the campaign.” The company has long maintained that, while the saxophone-blowing, pool-shooting Joe Camel may be extremely recognizable to young people, his hip image does not entice young people to begin smoking.
In 1994, the year the Federal Trade Commission last investigated Joe Camel, Reynolds hired the Roper organization to conduct a survey of youth attitudes toward the campaign. The survey found that 95 percent of 10 to 17 year olds identified Joe Camel as a logo for cigarettes but that among those youths, 97 percent had negative views about smoking.
In 1994, the Federal Trade Commission sided with Reynolds. Overruling a staff recommendation, the commissioners voted, 3-2, to close its investigation into possible violations.
But last July, a bipartisan group of 67 congressmen wrote to the FTC asking that the investigation be reopened.
Now it will be up to the FTC to consider that new evidence. The commissioners can decide to reject the staff recommendations and close the case, or they can decide to file an administrative complaint. If a complaint is filed, Reynolds can negotiate a settlement, in which the FTC could demand that the advertisements be significantly changed or withdrawn.
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