Joe Camel's success with the young is a smoking gun, critics say


He's got the slickest race car, the hippest Ray-Bans, the raddest saxophone. He's a whiz on the harmonica, he shoots a mean game of pool, and, of course, he always gets the girl. He's so famous that 6-year-olds recognize him as quickly as Mickey Mouse. And, like Mickey, he's only a cartoon.

He's Joe Camel, and if ever there was a lightning rod in the debate over whether tobacco advertising lures young people to smoke, this four-legged dude with the attitude is it. He's been picked apart by epidemiologists and reported upon in prestigious medical journals. He has sent protesters into the streets; "Dump the Hump," they chanted in Chicago. He's been scrutinized -- and cleared -- by the Federal Trade Commission, and he's the target of a lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Recently, Joe Camel -- along with the Marlboro man, the Virginia Slims gals and others -- helped provide the impetus for President Clinton's move to limit sharply cigarette advertising in an effort to curb teen-age smoking. The tobacco industry is waging war on the plan, which includes a ban on billboard advertising within 1,000 feet of schools and would reduce tobacco ads to black-and-white text in magazines that have a youth readership of 15 percent or more.

Perhaps the biggest symbol in this controversy is smokin' Joe, a party-hardy dromedary with an oversized schnoz, an ever-present smirk and a cigarette that is always lighted but never seems to burn. His foes think he's sinister; an exercise in subliminal seduction, they allege. His maker says he's misunderstood, a scapegoat. (Make that scape-camel.) Whatever Joe is, one thing is certain: He's good at selling cigarettes.

For R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the maker of Camel cigarettes, Joe Camel has been a bonanza. The marketing campaign helped reverse the declining fortunes of an 82-year-old brand that the Tobacco Reporter once bluntly described as "decrepit."

That has changed in the years since Joe worked his way into America's cultural landscape. He has become a ubiquitous presence in magazines and on billboards -- as well as on T-shirts, ball caps and other products that can be acquired with phony money, known as "Camel cash," that bears the likeness of Joe dolled up, Ray-Bans and all, in a powdered George Washington wig.

Before the birth of Joe Camel in 1988, the federal government reports, an estimated 3 percent of teen-age smokers and 4 percent of adult smokers picked Camel cigarettes as their brand of choice. Five years later, the percentage of adult smokers favoring Camels remained the same, but among smokers ages 12 to 18, Camel's market share had more than tripled to 13 percent, prompting outrage among public health professionals and tobacco critics who say Joe Camel is proof the industry targets young people with its ads.

"What is notable about Joe Camel is that it is incredibly obvious that they are targeting children," said Mark Pertschuk, spokesman for Americans for Nonsmokers Rights, a Berkeley, Calif.-based anti-tobacco group. "It doesn't take a Ph.D. to tell you that cartoon characters on skateboards are not targeting 35-year-old professional women."

Countered Maura Ellis, an R. J. Reynolds spokeswoman: "There is nothing nefarious behind Joe Camel. Joe has been scrutinized up one side and down the other by the U.S. government and has been exonerated."

Underlying this pitched debate is a public health paradox: In the past three decades, as more and more evidence has accumulated linking smoking to disease, the number of adult Americans who smoke has steadily declined. But overall, the smoking population has remained the same. This is because teen-agers are stepping in to fill the gap.

"The biggest success story of the public health movement is the convincing of adults not to be enticed to start smoking," said John Pierce, a University of California, San Diego, epidemiologist who studies the link between advertising and tobacco use. "Our biggest failure is our inability to convince our adolescents against the lures of the industry."

More than 3.1 million adolescents smoke, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A long-running study conducted by the University of Michigan found that 19 percent of high school seniors used cigarettes daily in 1993.

Of six cigarette advertising campaigns, one study found, Camel was the most familiar brand to 12- to 17-year-olds. Another study found that 90 percent of children ages 8 to 13 named Camel when asked to pick a familiar brand. Seventy-three percent named Marlboro, even though Marlboro's market share is seven times that of Camel.

Three weeks ago, the CDC published data on "initiation rates" among adolescent smokers -- the percentage of young people who begin smoking each year. Throughout the 1980s, the rate was essentially unchanged, ranging from 4.6 percent to 5.5 percent. But there was one year that the rate jumped above 6 percent. That was 1988. The researcher who conducted that study, epidemiologist Michael Cummings at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., says he has a phrase for what happened: "I call it the Camel hump."

In 1987, with the 75th birthday of Camel cigarettes a year away, R. J. Reynolds began looking for a way to freshen up the brand's stale image.

If Camel was to survive, it needed to compete with Marlboro, the industry leader. Someone trotted out Joe's prototype used by R. J. Reynolds' French subsidiary, and the R. J. Reynolds people in the United States liked what they saw.

By 1988, a jazzier version of Joe the camel began turning up in the unlikeliest of places -- on the golf course, dressed in dapper chinos; at a nightclub, strumming his electric guitar in a black T-shirt and blazer; in the pool hall, his red baseball cap turned backward as he lined up his cue. "Smooth character," the ads proclaimed.

Three years later, Joe came out with his own line of merchandise featured in the Camel Cash catalog, free at convenience stores. In every pack of Camels comes a C-note -- a phony dollar bill. Joe's tank top costs 55 C-notes. Joe's denim biker jacket costs 490.

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