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Studies Reveal Camel Cigarette Cartoon May Entice Young Children To Smoke

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A popular advertising campaign for a brand of cigarettes that uses a cartoon camel as its spokesman strongly appeals to young people and may entice them to smoke, the results of several new studies suggest.

The studies, published last month in a special issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association entirely devoted to smoking, provide the first evidence to date that the advertising campaign for Camel cigarettes, which has long been criticized by anti-smoking advocates, may have a stronger appeal to young smokers and to young potential smokers than to adults.

In recent years, health advocates have become concerned that tobacco remains popular among teenagers.

An annual national survey of high-school seniors in 1990 found that 29.4 percent had smoked cigarettes during the previous month, up from 28.6 percent of the class of 1989. One-half of high-school seniors who smoke began by the 8th grade, several studies have found.

The tobacco industry has long maintained that the purpose of cigarette advertisements is to entice adult smokers to switch brands, not to persuade young people to begin smoking.

Health officials and anti-smoking groups charge, however, that the industry has been attempting to persuade young people to smoke in order to make up for the growing number of adult customers who are kicking the habit, and they have pushed for bans on tobacco advertisements.

The anti-smoking advocates, in particular, have been highly critical of the "Old Joe" Camel campaign launched by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in 1988.

They say that print advertisements and billboards for the brand featuring the character, a cartoon camel with an oversized nose, in a variety of social activities, was designed to influence children, not adults.

Thomas Lauria, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, countered that the Old Joe campaign was not designed to attract children. "We don't want kids for customers," he said.

Old Joe and Mickey Mouse

But results from the studies printed in the Dec. 11 medical journal, several of which were funded by anti-smoking groups, suggest that the cartoon campaign has indeed had a strong influence on young people.

In one study, the researchers found that 6-year-olds were as likely to know the brand logo for Camel cigarettes, Old Joe, as they were to know the symbol for the Disney Channel, Mickey Mouse.

More children recognized the Camel logo than that for any other cigarette brand, the study found.

"While cigarette companies claim that they do not intend to market to children, their intentions are irrelevant if advertising affects what children know," the researchers from the Medical College of Georgia and the University of North Carolina conclude. "R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company is as effective as the Disney Channel in reaching 6-year-old children."

Another study, completed by researchers from six universities, suggests that Camel's market share among young smokers has dramatically increased since the introduction of Old Joe.

According to seven surveys involving 3,400 smokers in junior and senior high school between 1976 and 1988, less than 0.5 percent smoked Camels, the study said. But a survey of students in grades 7 through 12 in five states during the 1990-91 school year found that 32.8 percent of the students who smoked preferred Camels, the study said.

Based on this information, the authors estimate that children spend $476 million a year on Camel cigarettes, a marked increase from the estimated $6 million spent by minors before the Old Joe campaign was launched.

The authors also note that children were more likely to recognize the cartoon camel than were adults, and were more likely to think Joe was "cool" or "interesting" than were adults.

"A total ban of tobacco advertising and promotions, as part of an effort to protect children from the dangers of tobacco, can be based on sound scientific reasoning," the authors conclude.

Calling for a Ban

A third study, completed by a team from the University of California at San Diego, the National Cancer Institute, and the California Department of Health Services, found that very young teenagers were more likely to recognize Camel advertisements than were older teenagers and adults.

The authors of this study also call for a ban on all tobacco advertisements.

In response to these studies, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, and the American Cancer Society have asked the Federal Trade Commission to take action against the Camel advertisements and to restrict all advertising for tobacco products.

In a letter sent to the F.T.c. last month, the three groups called the Old Joe campaign "one of the most egregious examples in recent history of tobacco advertisements targeted at children."

Mr. Lauria, of the Tobacco Institute, said he believes there is insufficient evidence in these studies to support banning tobacco advertisements.

"Recognizing cigarette advertisements, or car advertisements, or whatever, does not necessarily equate to consumption or the initiation of consumption," he said.

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