Tobacco Ads' Impact Debatable, Except to Some Lawmakers


Joe Camel is on his deathbed, a victim of public disapproval and charges by the Federal Trade Commission that R.J. Reynolds used the cartoon character to promote "a dangerous and addictive product" to those too young to purchase cigarettes legally.

In his place, however, RJR has put a seductive young woman in a sleeveless black dress tipping a martini glass to her lips, a small pack of Camels just below the drink.

Is this sensuous woman an improvement over Joe Camel? Many members of Congress don't think so. That helps explain why they are pressing hard for an ironclad guarantee in the national tobacco settlement that the industry will voluntarily stop virtually all advertising.

Such a sweeping ban would have to be voluntary; a legislated ban would run afoul of the industry's 1st Amendment right to free speech. Of all the concessions made by the tobacco industry last year in its effort to settle 40 damage suits filed by the states, the advertising ban is the only major one that cannot be imposed by Congress.

So eager are some members of Congress to get the advertising ban that they say they are prepared to give in to the tobacco industry's chief demand: partial immunity from future lawsuits brought by smokers seeking recompense for the damage done by their habit.

But in their zeal for advertising restraints, lawmakers may be exaggerating the effectiveness that Joe Camel, the Marlboro Man and other tobacco promotions have in hooking young people on cigarettes. Those who study the issue have decidedly mixed views on the role of advertising in luring new smokers.

Some experts believe advertising has almost no effect. Even those who believe it does are convinced there are other more significant factors than the sultry young lady in the new Camel ads.

"If you [could do] only one thing to discourage smoking, the best evidence we have is on price increases," said Michael P. Ericksen, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's office of smoking and health. He cites statistics showing that a 10% increase in the price of cigarettes spells a 7% reduction in the number of kids who start smoking.

Some economists go further still.

"I don't believe that advertising has anything to do with kids' decisions to smoke," says Jack Calfee, an American Enterprise Institute economist who formerly worked on tobacco issues for the FTC.

Peer pressure and family attitudes are far better predictors of whether children will become smokers than advertising is, Calfee said. "If your friends smoke, you're more likely to smoke," he said. "If your parents smoke, you're more likely to smoke."

Tobacco advertising has risen and fallen through the years, according to this view, with little apparent impact on consumption. Adult smokers, 43% of the population in 1966, have declined steadily to 25% in 1995. Meanwhile, smoking rates are growing among minors.

Likewise, black youths are only one-third as likely as whites to smoke, according to government studies, even though tobacco industry documents--disclosed recently as part of court proceedings--suggest that cigarette makers have gone out of their way to appeal to young blacks.

Few analysts, however, go as far as Calfee.

"Advertising is a significant influence," said Kenneth Warner, an economist at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health who was chief scientific editor of the 1989 surgeon general's 25th anniversary report on smoking.

"Is it the most important influence?" Warner asked. "Absolutely not. Increasing the price of cigarettes--a lot--is far and away the most important thing we can do to reduce youth smoking."

The tobacco industry, which spends billions of dollars a year on advertising, clearly believes it is worthwhile. In 1995 the industry spent $4.9 billion on advertising, marketing and promotion, according to the FTC.

But the industry claims the purpose is to woo smokers from one brand to another, not to turn young people into smokers.

"Advertising can only do one of two things: reinforce the brand-buying decision of the person who is already a buyer of that product, and give a customer a compelling reason to give a competitor a shot," said RJR spokeswoman Peggy Carter. "Certainly kids are aware of advertising for a wide range of adult products, but there's no implication that they are going to use the product."

Government studies dispute the industry's contention that advertising does not encourage youths to smoke. They show that the most heavily advertised brands--Camel, Marlboro and Newport--are also those most frequently chosen by underage smokers.

In recent years the industry has channeled the largest percentage of its promotional dollars not into traditional advertising, but rather into such gimmicks as discount coupons, free key chains and lighters and, to a lesser extent, free samples. A study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. found that 34% of children who owned tobacco caps, T-shirts and other trinkets soon experimented with cigarettes.

Study after study shows that advertising subtly makes smoking appear legitimate and even glamorous, especially to children.

"Young people in particular respond to the images and the color in advertisements," said William Schultz, deputy commissioner for policy at the Food and Drug Administration. "Advertising plays an important role in making tobacco products socially acceptable and in enticing children to use these products."

The FDA proposed rules in 1996 that would drastically restrict advertising aimed at children. The regulations are not yet in effect, however, because they are being challenged in court. The agency focused the rules on children in an effort to withstand a constitutional challenge that it was abridging tobacco companies' right to free speech.

The rules would ban tobacco ads on billboards near schools, stop the use of tobacco brand names and logos on promotional trinkets, end tobacco companies' sponsorship of sports, musical and other events, and stop all but text-only advertisements in magazines with more than 15% youth readership or more than 2 million readers under age 18.

That would mean no more cigarette ads in People, Sports Illustrated, Life and Cosmopolitan, among others. Also gone would be the Virginia Slims tennis tournament and the Marlboro Cup.

"If you take the images and color out, the advertising would be far less appealing to young people, " said the FDA's Schultz. "Yet it leaves companies the room to communicate to adults and attempt to persuade them to switch brands."

The tobacco industry took the FDA regulations to court. The U.S. District Court in North Carolina raised no 1st Amendment objections, but said the FDA did not have the legal authority to regulate advertising. The case in on appeal.

Worried that the FDA rules, much less a regulated ban, might not withstand constitutional attack, Congress would like the tobacco companies to stop advertising voluntarily. But even a voluntary agreement might be subject to challenge by magazines, billboard operators and others whose revenue would be cut.

For all the disputes about tobacco-company advertising, experts seem to agree on the effectiveness of one kind of message: those that discourage smoking.

For three years in the late 1960s, before cigarette ads were taken off television in 1971, television and radio broadcasters were required also to broadcast anti-smoking ads. Smoking rates, which had risen steadily until then, began to drop among adults. Once the anti-smoking ads were off the air--they disappeared along with the cigarette ads--smoking rates again began to rise.

The proposed tobacco settlement would require a massive ad campaign against smoking, as would every bill introduced in Congress thus far to implement the settlement.

Such campaigns have been particularly successful in tests in Vermont, New York and Montana, where students who both received anti-smoking education in school and were exposed to anti-tobacco advertising were 35% less likely to smoke than students who received only the anti-smoking classes.

"Fifty percent of eighth-graders do not think that there's a risk in being a pack-a-day smoker," said Lloyd Johnston, the senior research scientist in charge of the Monitoring the Future study of youth drug abuse done at the University of Michigan.

"We tend to assume that there's been a lot of anti-smoking messages out there that reach kids," Johnston said. "But there hasn't been, and it's critical because that's the age when a lot of them start smoking."

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