November 9, 1998

Out of Work for a Year, Joe Camel Now Faces Government Charges


WASHINGTON -- Joe Camel, the advertising icon that became a powerful symbol to critics of the tobacco industry's efforts to lure minors to smoking, will go on trial on Monday, more than a year after he was retired by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

The Federal Trade Commission brought the case contending that Reynolds, a unit of RJR Nabisco, committed an unfair trade practice by using the Joe Camel character to attract children and adolescents to cigarettes. Government lawyers assert that once Reynolds introduced the campaign, Joe Camel became as recognizable to children as Mickey Mouse, promoting a lethally addictive product for a segment of the cigarette market that was central to the company's future.

The case is the culmination of an eight-year struggle between the FTC and Reynolds over the Joe Camel campaign. It is also the first time the commission has characterized a tobacco advertising program as unfair because of its effect on young consumers.

Since the company voluntarily decided to pull the campaign last year just weeks after the commission filed its complaint, the case has turned into the regulatory equivalent of a probate contest, with the two sides fighting over Joe Camel's corpus.

The government seeks a permanent ban blocking Reynolds from ever using Joe or his brethren characters, which include Buster, Max and Floyd, in cigarette ads. Government lawyers have also asked the administrative law judge hearing the case to order Reynolds to pay for a consumer education program that would discourage adolescents and teen-agers from buying cigarettes.

In its defense, Reynolds has tried to transform Joe Camel from a cool and goofy promotional character to a protector of the First Amendment. The company says that Joe Camel has had no significant impact on smoking by people younger than 18 and argues that the commission's complaint poses fundamental constitutional issues that are certain to affect how other industries can go about marketing their products.

"The witnesses and other evidence the FTC will put on will not show that Joe Camel caused anyone -- let alone underage persons -- to start smoking, smoke more or not quit when they otherwise would have," said Guy Blynn, vice president and deputy general counsel of Reynolds. "This attack on cigarette advertising will fail both because it does not meet the Federal Trade Commission's own standard for establishing unfairness, and because it tramples on the constitutionally protected right of a lawful industry to advertise a lawful product."

Lawyers at the commission respond that the First Amendment does not protect unfair trade practices, particularly in a case like this in which the product at issue causes so many deaths and illnesses. In a trial brief filed two weeks ago, the FTC said that the Camel campaign "had immediate and dramatic effects on youth smoking behavior."

"Within one year, Camel's brand share of smokers below the legal smoking age almost tripled and within five years quadrupled," the brief said. "More disturbing, the incidence of youngsters age 12-17 smoking their first cigarette began to increase, as did the incidence of daily smoking by this age group."

According to a federal survey, the brief concluded, the incidence of new smoking increased by nearly a third, and the incidence of daily smoking rose by 50 percent, during the years of the Joe Camel campaign.

But the company contends that the Joe Camel campaign was aimed primarily at the 18-to-24-year-old age group. The case will feature a stream of testimony and company documents about its advertising campaign, revealing the marketing strategy of Reynolds at a time when it was beginning to see a serious erosion in sales.

In addition to company executives who worked on the campaign, the two sides are expected to call experts in health, marketing and economics.

The Joe Camel character was created in 1974 by a British artist, Nicholas Price, for a Camel advertising campaign in France that subsequently appeared in other countries throughout the 1970s. The character arrived in the United States in 1988 in materials created by Trone Advertising in Greensboro, N.C., for the 75th anniversary of the Camel brand.

The figure almost immediately attracted the attention of officials studying the problem of smoking among the young.

After studies found that Camels were 10 times as popular among teen-agers as adults and that illegal sales of cigarettes to minors had reached $500 million, the surgeon general, Antonia Novello, called on Reynolds to withdraw the Joe Camel campaign.

Five years ago, the FTC staff recommended banning Joe Camel ads because of their appeal to children. But in 1994 the commission rejected the recommendation by a vote of 3-2. President Clinton then attacked Joe Camel, saying the campaign told minors that "smoking is cool."

In March 1997, the staff of the FTC once again recommended action against the campaign and two months later, the commission approved the complaint that is to be heard on Monday.

The case is expected to be completed next month.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company