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Joe Camel Illegally Targets Minors, FTC Charges

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The Federal Trade Commission charged the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. last week with violating federal law by using its Joe Camel cigarette-advertising campaign to entice minors to smoke.

In filing a complaint against the tobacco giant for alleged unfair-advertising practices, the FTC is looking to ban the cartoon mascot for Camel cigarettes from marketing to minors--something the company denies doing. The agency is also seeking to compel the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based company to conduct a public education campaign aimed at discouraging minors from smoking tobacco products.

Anti-smoking advocates said last week that they hoped the charge marked the beginning of the end for the cartoon character they have lobbied against for years.

"We think this is a welcome step," said William D. Novelli, the president of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, based in Washington. "I would like to see the Joe Camel character disappear, period," he said.

R.J. Reynolds has repeatedly denied that it markets to adolescent consumers. Company officials say the Joe Camel campaign is directed at young adult smokers.

In a statement last week, the company called the FTC's action "unprecedented, unfounded, and unwarranted."

"Joe Camel has become the government's scapegoat for issues our society has been unable to resolve," the May 28 statement said.

The FTC's complaint must go before a federal administrative law judge, who will decide whether federal officials proved that R.J. Reynolds violated the Federal Trade Commission Act by marketing its product to smokers under age 18 and what penalties, if any, are appropriate. No date has been set for a trial.

The FTC's complaint follows on the heels of a landmark ruling in federal district court in April that allowed the federal Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products, but not to restrict the industry's advertising and promotional campaigns. ("FDA Plan To Ban Tobacco Sales To Minors Upheld," May 7, 1997.)

New Evidence

The FTC considered a similar charge against the tobacco manufacturer several years ago. FTC officials did not provide details at a news conference last week of what new information prompted them to move forward. But evidence the FTC has acquired recently shows an R.J. Reynolds plan to attract the youngest smokers, according to the FTC statement.

Last week, the FTC charged that beginning in 1987, R.J. Reynolds began running ads with the Joe Camel "Smooth Character" featured at the beach, in nightclubs, and in other situations designed to lure younger people to smoke.

"Joe Camel has become as recognizable to kids as Mickey Mouse," said Jodie Bernstein, the director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection. "Joe Camel must grow up or go away."

R.J. Reynolds rejected allegations that the Joe Camel campaign represents an organized effort to appeal to underage smokers, adding there is "no evidence of deceptive or unconscionable behavior" on the company's part.

People who smoke cigarettes risk addiction and long-term health problems, including cancer and heart disease, and the earlier they begin smoking, the greater the risks, health experts say.

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