Joe Camel has been set free.
The Federal Trade Commission has voted not to seek restrictions on Joe Camel ads despite a staff finding that the suave dromedary encourages youngsters to start smoking cigarettes, the head of a major anti-smoking group said yesterday.
"It's a major setback for the public health in this country," said Scott Ballin, chairman of the Coalition on Smoking OR Health in Washington, which brought the complaint more than three years ago.
"It basically gives the tobacco industry a green light to aggressively target kids with seductive advertising messages and says that the industry should not fear any reprisals from the Federal Trade Commission."
The decision is a rare victory for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which makes Camel cigarettes, and the rest of the tobacco industry amid a spate of bad news. The industry has been pummeled by smoking bans, cigarette tax increases and congressional hearings on the role of nicotine in cigarettes.
"We have always maintained that the Camel campaign is designed to reach adult smokers," R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. said in a statement based on reports of the vote.
The company said it had not been officially notified of any action.
Lee Peeler, associate director for advertising practices at the FTC, declined to confirm or deny the report.
He said the commission can only comment publicly if it either issues a complaint or votes to close a matter. It is possible for the FTC to keep a case open even after it votes.
Mr. Ballin said the commission, breaking a long stalemate, voted 3-2 Tuesday against pursuing the complaint. Mary L. Azcuenaga, who had long been refusing to vote one way or the other, provided the final vote against, he said.
Opponents of a ban have argued that it would be a violation of the First Amendment, which protects advertising. Supporters of a ban have said the FTC has the right to act because the campaign could be harmful to children.
Mr. Ballin's coalition has also filed a complaint with the FTC about the Marlboro Adventure Team campaign, saying that cigarette companies had agreed not to depict smokers in vigorous sporting activities.