The first present Kellen Cox received on her 24th birthday was a set of six drink coasters that came in the mail -- each bearing the recipe of an exotic cocktail.
One concoction, the Crazy Bootlegger, called for a shot each of Jack Daniel’s, Southern Comfort and Sambuca. “Mix three shots together over ice, then make sure you’re sitting,” the coaster urged.
The gift giver was no friend, or even a liquor company. It was tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds, promoting its Camel brand of cigarettes by sending the coasters as birthday presents to people in their 20s. The marketing campaign is drawing fire from state authorities and liquor distillers.
Critics say the coasters are part of a grass-roots marketing campaign to associate Camel cigarettes with trendy cocktails -- and encourage young people to drink. California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer on Tuesday joined his counterparts in Maryland and New York, along with the alcoholic beverage industry, in condemning the campaign.
The high alcohol content of the drink recipes, as well as the accompanying boozy messages, will “blatantly encourage irresponsible and excessive consumption of alcohol,” Lockyer said.
Touting a drink called After Dark -- equal parts Kahlua, Bailey’s Irish Cream and Licor 43 -- one coaster says, “Layer it on, go ‘til daybreak.” Others advise, “Kiss your worries goodbye” and “Pour over ice, then let it burn.”
Cox, a public relations major at the University of Texas at Arlington, figures she ended up on the company’s mailing list last year when a tobacco company employee approached her in a bar and persuaded her to fill out a form.
“I was drunk, and they said, ‘We’ll give you free stuff,’ ” she recalled.
Cox conceded that the promotion was clever -- she smokes only when she drinks.
“Marketing-wise, it’s very smart,” Cox said.
Reynolds has long been accused by anti-smoking and health activists of targeting youth. The company dropped ads featuring the Joe Camel cartoon character in 1997 after the Federal Trade Commission charged the company with unfair advertising practices.
In 2004 the company agreed to pay an $11.4-million penalty to end a suit by Lockyer accusing the cigarette maker of marketing to teens by advertising Camel and other brands in magazines such as InStyle, Spin and Hot Rod.
But Maura Payne, vice president of communications for Reynolds, said the company was being wrongly accused over the latest campaign. It sends the drink promotion only to people who had identified themselves as smokers -- by accepting free samples at a Reynolds-sponsored event, for example -- and only after independently verifying they are legally entitled to drink, she said.
As part of the tobacco industry’s landmark 1998 settlement with states that barred advertising to minors, bars are among the few places companies can pass out free cigarettes, Payne said, because they are off-limits to children.
Payne declined to say how many people have received the Reynolds mailing.
Although the birthday greetings program began in January, the attorneys general got involved late last month after a Maryland resident lodged a complaint with the office of state Atty. Gen. J. Joseph Curran Jr., according to Lockyer’s spokesman, Tom Dresslar. “It kind of snowballed from there,” Dresslar said.
Payne said the promotion was slated to end in April 2006, although that date was “currently being reviewed internally” in response to the complaint from attorneys general.
Marvin Goldberg, a business professor at Pennsylvania State University, said Reynolds was using a self-perpetuating style of marketing to promote smoking by touting alcoholic drinks.
“This is the perfect setup for viral marketing,” he said. The coasters introduce the “virus,” he said, tacitly encourage young people -- including underage friends and family members of those who receive the coasters -- to drink and smoke.
Yet “the tobacco industry isn’t anywhere around,” Goldberg said. “They can say: ‘It’s not us. Their friends got them to smoke.’ ”
John Pellinghelli, a classmate of Cox’s at UT Arlington who is studying marketing, agrees that the campaign is clever.
“They’ve obviously been doing some research,” said Pellinghelli, 21.
“I think if you ask anybody my age, most of those who don’t smoke will still smoke a cigarette if they are drinking. I think it’s pretty common.”
Among the strongest critics of the Camel campaign are makers of the alcohol products named on the drink coasters. The industry -- which also has faced accusations of trying to lure minors with advertisements -- accused Reynolds of not only marketing to minors, but misusing their trademarks.
Peter Cressy, president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, said Tuesday that he was outraged by the “unauthorized, irresponsible campaign condoning excessive, illegal drinking.”
“The spirits brands highlighted in the R.J. Reynolds marketing promotion were included without the knowledge, consent or participation of any spirits company,” he said, adding that his industry “does not condone any marketing materials that glorify drunkenness and illegal, underage consumption.”
Brad Haas, a student from Thousand Oaks majoring in pre-med at UCLA, said he didn’t receive coasters or any other promotional material when he turned 21 in February. But he’s disturbed by the idea of tobacco companies targeting people his age through the mail.
“It’s troublesome to know that these companies are stalking you and trying to get your information,” Haas said. But “as the older generation of smokers are dying off, I guess you have to get new customers who are young.”