Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. has filed a $5.3 million lawsuit against cigarette maker Brown & Williamson Corp., claiming a hip-hop promotional campaign for its Kool brand violates an agreement not to market tobacco to children.
The attorney general's office is asking a Baltimore Circuit Court judge to prevent the company from distributing free radios, lighters and compact discs and to halt the sale of cigarette packs wrapped in hip-hop labels in Maryland.
Curran also wants the company to pay $5.3 million in penalties for violating a 1998 pact between states and cigarette makers to stop youth marketing.
"Brown & Williamson has denied that what they are doing is a violation of the master settlement agreement [with tobacco companies], and we believe that the multimedia campaign is targeting youth," Curran said in an interview yesterday. "We would like to have a resolution that there is in fact a violation. We would like it stopped, and not restarted." The lawsuit was filed earlier this week.
In 1998, Maryland was one of 46 states to participate in the $206 billion settlement with the tobacco industry. The industry agreed to limit advertisement to adults, ban Joe Camel-style cartoons and finance anti-smoking campaigns.
Maryland's lawsuit comes two weeks after New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer persuaded a judge to curtail Kool activities there.
The New York judge issued a temporary injunction last month, ordering the company to shut down its House of Menthol Web site promoting its Kool MIXX campaign, and discontinue toll-free numbers.
The Maryland lawsuit claims that the campaign's reliance on hip-hop music and its store displays, product packaging and magazine advertisements that go with it are aimed at an audience between ages 12 and 17.
"Hip-hop is one of the music genres most preferred by the youth culture, and the popularity of this genre declines as the age group increases," said Michael Kamins, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business Administration, in an affidavit accompanying the suit. "As a result, linking one's marketing strategy to hip-hop is an extremely effective approach if a company wishes to sell its product to youth."
Richard A. Daynard, a Northeastern University law school professor and chairman of the Tobacco Products liability project, said the Kool marketing blitz "almost certainly" violates the prohibition against targeting underage smokers.
Daynard called the settlement agreement language against youth marketing vague, but said, "If this ain't it, nothing is."
Brown & Williamson and R.J. Reynolds tobacco companies have been "particularly reckless," Daynard said, in their marketing activities. "It's really quite extraordinary behavior," he said. "They just seem to act as if nothing has changed."
Smith, the Brown & Williamson spokesman, said the company does not aim advertising at kids. Hip-hop is popular in the 25 to 34 age group, he said, and magazine advertisements are included only in publications sent to adult subscribers identified through database programs.
While the company spokesman said that 60 percent of Kool smokers are white, Deirdre Smith, a spokeswoman for National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, doesn't believe the statistic.
She said the mentholated brand is favored by African-Americans and the marketing campaign is designed to hook young blacks.
"They have to find replacement smokers, because smokers are dying," she said. "African-Americans are dying more of lung cancers than other groups."
Maryland officials claim that the company violated its agreement by distributing "goody bags" packed with merchandise at a Kool MIXX DJ competition in Prince George's County in April. They say the company has shipped 35,000 special-edition cigarette packages into Maryland since March, and that those packs are still available despite company assurances to withdraw them.
The attorney general's office says it sent several letters to the company, asking it to change its campaign.
"They've denied any violation, but along the way have indicated they would voluntarily cease certain things," said Marlene Trestman, a special assistant to the attorney general working on tobacco issues. "We have no assurance that it will not be repeated."
"When we say it is brand merchandise, they say it is not. When we say it is youth-targeting, they say they did not," Trestman said. "To have any certainty in the state of Maryland, we were really left with no choice but to proceed with this enforcement action."