WASHINGTON -- In another blow to an industry under siege, the Federal Trade Commission charged yesterday that R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. illegally targets minors with its "Joe Camel" advertising campaign.
The agency asserted in an administrative complaint that the company violated federal fair trade practice laws by promoting a lethal and addictive product to children who could not legally purchase or use it.
This is the first time that the commission has accused the tobacco industry of peddling its products to minors. Yesterday's action also represents the agency's most extensive use of company documents to support its charges in a tobacco case.
The government believes that R. J. Reynolds papers will prove that the company deliberately designed its cartoon-based advertising campaign in the mid-1980s to increase its shrinking market share among young smokers.
The complaint amounts to a civil indictment, agency officials said. The case will be tried before an administrative law judge.
R. J. Reynolds vowed to contest the agency's action. In a written statement, the company denied that it targeted underage smokers and said that it had a First Amendment right to advertise its products in an appealing way.
"The real loser today is the American public," said Charles Blixt, the tobacco company's senior vice president and general counsel. "When the theory on which the commission has proceeded is examined, I expect that those in the motion picture, music, cosmetic, lottery, beer, wine and spirits businesses-- to name a few -- will feel the cold chill of potential regulation on their backs."
The commission voted 3-2 to bring the action, which adds to the troubles facing the tobacco industry. Cigarette makers are seeking to negotiate relief from dozens of lawsuits from state attorneys general and plaintiffs' lawyers in exchange for payments of hundreds of billions of dollars.
In Chicago yesterday, those talks hit a potential roadblock as more than 100 public health advocates and grass-roots anti-smoking activists, many wearing buttons opposing any deal with the tobacco industry, convened at a hotel for a contentious meeting with some of the key participants in the settlement negotiations.
There was no consensus after a closed-door gathering, sponsored by the American Medical Association and billed as a "listening session" rather than a strategy meeting. After an entire day of debate with two negotiators, Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore and Matthew Myers of the Center for Tobacco Free-Kids, the activists said they would urge the negotiators not to rush into a deal. And they warned they would not support any proposal that gives the cigarette makers immunity from future lawsuits.
Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. reiterated his position against waiving future liability for the tobacco industry.
"Any deal that relieves the tobacco industry of liability is not a settlement, but a gift," he said in a written statement yesterday. "And why should we be giving something to an industry that manufactures a product that has killed so many people?"
Tobacco advertising -- particularly advertising aimed at young people -- is a central part of the overall settlement talks, which have been under way since March. Cigarette makers have expressed a willingness to accept sharp restrictions on advertising, including the use of human and cartoon characters, as part of a deal to win partial immunity from litigation.
Earlier this year, one of the nation's major tobacco companies, the Liggett Group Inc., acknowledged that the industry targets minors with its promotional efforts because virtually all smokers begin the habit as teen-agers.
FTC officials said that the timing of yesterday's commission action was not influenced by the settlement talks and did not depend upon Liggett's assertions about industry practices.
President Clinton, members of Congress, federal regulators and public health advocates are pressing the industry to halt practices that they claim entice teen-agers to smoke.
An estimated 3,000 children under the age of 18 begin smoking each day, according to public health surveys.
The FTC is seeking to ban the widely recognized Joe Camel cartoon figure, which the agency asserts lures young people to emulate his "cool" and "smooth" image by taking up smoking or switching to the Camel brand. The agency also wants additional company documents detailing its marketing strategy. In addition, the FTC seeks to require the cigarette maker to fund a nationwide anti-smoking campaign aimed at teen-agers.
Pub Date: 5/29/97