Furor Over Smoking Camel : Health: Several medical studies charge that a cigarette maker's cartoon mascot is a deliberate appeal to children.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Six-year-old children are nearly as familiar with the cartoon mascot used to sell Camel cigarettes as they are with Mickey Mouse, according to a new study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

The study was one of three in the periodical that lambasted Camel's "Old Joe" cartoon logo for targeting children and charged that tobacco advertising has a far greater influence on children than has been realized. The studies were conducted independently during the past year at top American universities and medical schools.

Using the studies as ammunition, the American Cancer Society and two other major health organizations filed a petition Tuesday with the Federal Trade Commission to immediately ban all ads featuring the logo by Camel maker R. J. Reynolds. They contend that Reynolds' targets children with its cartoon mascot.

Reynolds denied the AMA charges in a three-page statement and said it has no plans to drop the campaign. The company strongly denies that its ads are aimed at children. Executives at its New York ad agency, Mezzina/Brown, did not return phone calls.

"We do not want children to smoke," said Maura Payne, a Reynolds spokeswoman. "Kids see hundreds of advertising images a day. The fact that they are aware of a product does not mean that they will take action to buy it."

At issue, however, is far more than the Camel logo. The FTC will not comment on whether it will take the case. But should the FTC investigate--and eventually order R. J. Reynolds to drop the campaign--it would set a precedent that would clearly indicate that the agency intends to keep a much closer eye on cigarette marketing, government and health experts say.

An FTC spokeswoman said Tuesday that an investigation could take months. She said the agency has never before ordered a tobacco company to kill a campaign because it appealed to children.

Although tobacco industry officials will not say so publicly, some have stated privately that they expect all cigarette advertising in the United States will be limited to so-called tombstone ads before the end of the decade. Such ads would contain only brand identification and a health warning.

Critics of the ads contend that with the long-term decline in smoking--and downturn in domestic cigarette sales--the tobacco companies are turning more aggressively to children as a last resort.

"Kids are more familiar with 'Old Joe' than they are with the Cheerios logo," said Paul M. Fischer, professor in the Department of of Family Medicine at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, who conducted a brand recognition study. "At a very early age, kids are associating these very nice, fuzzy images with smoking behavior. Whether they intend to or not, these advertisements are appealing to young people."

In Fischer's study of 229 preschool children ages 3 to 6, children were asked to match brand logos with products pictured on a game board. More than 91% of the 6-year-olds correctly matched "Old Joe" with a picture of a cigarette--slightly less than those who were able to match Mickey Mouse ears with the Disney Channel.

The typical smoker of Camel cigarettes is a 35-year-old male, said Payne, Reynolds' spokeswoman. She said fewer than 2% of all Camel smokers are minors.

But the researchers say those numbers are far too low. Camel's share of the $1.5-billion "illegal" preteen cigarette market segment has jumped from less than 1% to nearly 33%, to $476 million a year, said Joseph R. DiFranza, an anti-smoking activist and professor of family medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. DiFranza organized a study of the cartoon camel's affects on children.

"If they (R. J. Reynolds) are targeting adults," DiFranza said, "they are completely incompetent. The only ones paying attention to their (Camel) ads are children."

To study whether ads were encouraging minors to start smoking, researchers from UC San Diego's Population Studies for Cancer Prevention polled nearly 25,000 adults and 5,000 teen-agers and found that Camel has been the most effective in targeting adolescents.

For years, Camel has run an extensive advertising campaign in Spin magazine, a New York-based rock music publication aimed at 18- to 24-year-olds. But Bob Guccione Jr., publisher of Spin, angrily denies that the ads promote smoking among minors.

"These ads are not creating a nation of 6-year-old smokers," Guccione said. "If an ad starts some 6-year-old smoking, the parents should be taken out and shot."

Camel's Powerful Image Researchers asked 1,060 high school students from five U.S. regions and 491 Massachusetts adults about Camel cigarette ads featuring "Old Joe." Children were both better able to recognize the character and indicated they liked him better than did adults. A total of 229 school children ages 3-6 attending preschools in Georgia were instucted to match brand logos with 12 products pictured on a game board. Twenty-two logos were tested, including those representing children's products and those for Marlboro and Camel cigarettes.Ninety percent of the 6-year-olds correctly matched Old Joe with a picture of a cigarette-about the same number who were able to match Mickey Mouse ears with the DisneyChannel.

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Brand Logo Recognition by 3-to-6 Year-Old Children Source: American Medical Assn.

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