Despite repeated public denials, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the second-leading U.S. cigarette manufacturer, targeted teenage smokers as young as 13 in an attempt to regain market share during the past 25 years, according to internal company documents released Wednesday.
One memo from 1987, stamped “RJR secret,” describes a plan to develop a wide Camel cigarette targeted at “younger adult male smokers,” primarily the 13-24 age group, then smoking Marlboros, Philip Morris’ leading brand. RJR subsequently brought Camel Wides to market.
Another memo from a 1974 presentation to the board of RJR Industries by C.A. Tucker, vice president of marketing, said flatly: “This young adult market, the 14-24 age group, … represent(s) tomorrow’s cigarette business. As this 14-24 age group matures, they will account for a key share of the total cigarette volume - for at least the next 25 years.”
The R.J. Reynolds documents, which span 1973 to 1990, include confidential marketing surveys, communications to the company board of directors, reports by outside advertising firms, long-term planning documents and other internal memos, all of which deal with the youth smoking market.
Reynolds continued to deny Wednesday that it has targeted underage smokers and said the documents, released by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., a longtime industry critic, are being taken out of context.
Waxman got the papers from attorneys in California who had obtained them from RJR in a case - settled last September - that accused the company of using deceptive marketing practices, including youth targeting, in its highly successful Joe Camel campaign.
Release of the papers also heightens the possibility that the proposed $368.5 billion national tobacco settlement will be stiffened in Congress, in particular enhancing penalties on tobacco companies if they fail to reduce youth smoking.
The documents also are likely to have an impact on the Justice Department’s criminal investigation of the industry and numerous lawsuits against the cigarette companies, including Minnesota’s massive suit against the industry, which is scheduled to start next week.
Both Waxman and David A. Kessler, the former commissioner of the Federal Food and Drug Administration, said the new documents represented the strongest proof to date that the cigarette industry targeted minors after studying them in depth.
“If you’re looking for a smoking gun on youth targeting, you need look no further than these documents,” said Kessler, who is now dean of the Yale University Medical School.
“It’s very hard to read these documents and then say that the industry should get any special legal protections from Congress,” Kessler said. The industry’s key legislative goal this year is to obtain congressional ratification of the national litigation settlement, which would prohibit all future class-action suits and punitive damages against the cigarette companies.
The papers also may intensify the Justice Department’s investigation of whether cigarette officials misled the government about the nature of their products and industry marketing practices.
Waxman said he would send the material to Attorney General Janet Reno and ask her to broaden the current Justice Department probe. Among other matters, Justice and FBI officials are investigating whether the industry misled government officials by telling them that they never deliberately marketed their products to children. Among the incidents being reviewed is whether former RJR President James W. Johnston lied to Congress in testimony to a House subcommittee on April 14, 1994.
On that day, Johnston testified that “we do not market to children and will not.” He also testified that “we do not survey anyone under the age of 18.”
Johnston, who resigned as chief executive of RJR’s worldwide tobacco operations in June 1996, did not return calls Wednesday.
The memos clearly reflect deep concern at RJR about competitors Philip Morris and Brown & Williamson showing “unusual strength among these younger smokers.”
Additionally, a 1973 marketing memo states that the company should use comic strips to help entice “younger smokers” away from Philip Morris’ Marlboro, which had become the leading teen-age brand. That document described “younger smokers” as 14 to 24.
RJR’s two major brands, Winston and Salem, “show comparative weakness … among these young smokers.” Tucker goes on to say that the company’s market share will erode “unless this situation is corrected.”
In another instance, RJR commissioned a “Smokers Screening Profile,” which surveyed the smoking habits of over 11,000 teenagers, aged 14 to 17, including data on their brand of cigarette, cigarette purchasing habits, age, sex, religion, residence, household income, education and occupation of parents.
The documents outline Reynolds executives’ concern about the company’s future because of two facts about cigarette smoking known to RJR researchers: First, cigarette brand loyalty is so strong that it is extremely tough to get smokers to switch brands. Second, the great majority of smokers - in the mid-1970s RJR estimated up to 75 percent, but recent research shows 89 percent - started smoking by age 18, even though it is illegal.
Reynolds issued a formal statement, saying the documents were being misconstrued. For example, the company asserted that the 1987 document contained a typographical error and that, in reality, the memo should have said “18-24-year-old male Marlboro smokers.”
The company reiterated its long-standing position that it does not target teenagers.
“Not only is it unfair to the employees of Reynolds Tobacco to strip these documents from the context and perspective of the broad company record as well as the social standards of the times in which they were created, it is unfair to the American people and serves only the agenda of some who seek to benefit from a broad misperception of how this company has conducted this business,” the company said in a statement.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Where to find them Several documents reveal the thought process that led up to RJR’s 1988 launch of its highly successful and controversial Joe Camel campaign and how the campaign operated. An August 1988 memo states that outdoor advertisements should be placed wherever young people congregate, with the ideal locations being sites near fast food restaurants, convenience stores, urban basketball courts, video game arcades and record stores. - Los Angeles Times