MONDAY, March 15, 2010 (Health.com) — Does your teenage or college-age daughter read fashion magazines such as Glamour or Vogue? Does she smoke?
If the answer to both of those questions is yes, she may have been influenced by a series of advertisements for Camel cigarettes that appeared in those and other magazines in 2007, a new study suggests.
The four largest tobacco companies in the United States—including R.J. Reynolds, the maker of Camels—are prohibited from "directly or indirectly" marketing cigarettes and other tobacco products to young people, following the terms of a multibillion settlement the companies entered into in 1998 to compensate 46 states for tobacco-related health costs.
But according to the study, which was published this week in the journal Pediatrics, R.J. Reynolds seems to have evaded the terms of the settlement by devising a marketing strategy that—deliberately or otherwise—successfully caught the eye of teen girls and probably encouraged them to smoke.
“Whether [R.J. Reynolds] aimed or not, they were hitting the audience,” says the study's lead author, John P. Pierce, PhD, a professor in the cancer prevention and control program at the University of California, San Diego. “To me, they’re professionals. They probably aimed for it.”
The study focused on the ad campaign that accompanied the 2007 launch of the Camel No. 9 brand. Billed as “light & luscious” and designed to appeal to women, Camel No. 9’s sport a pink camel on each cigarette and black packaging trimmed with hot pink or teal. The extra-long 100s are marketed as "stilettos."
Advertisements for No. 9's appeared in magazines such as Vogue, Glamour, Us Weekly, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, and InStyle. Some of the ads included graphics mimicking the look of fashion spreads, and the campaign also featured promotional giveaways such as flavored lip balm and cell phone jewelry.
The ad campaign provoked an outcry from more than 40 members of Congress and a spate of angry letters to the editor of Vogue, and in 2008 R.J. Reynolds voluntarily ceased all print cigarette advertisements, including those for the No. 9 brand.
But the damage may have already been done, Pierce and his colleagues suggest.
Between 2003 and 2008, the researchers conducted annual telephone interviews with kids and teens about their attitudes toward tobacco. Each year, the researchers asked the same 681 participants—who were between 10 and 13 years old when the study began—whether they had a favorite cigarette ad.
In the first four years of the study, 10% to 13% of the girls named a Camel ad as their favorite. In 2008, after the No. 9 ad campaign had appeared, 21.5% of the girls said they liked a Camel ad best. (The percentage of boys who cited a Camel ad as their favorite also rose in 2008, but by a smaller and statistically insignificant margin.)
Next page: Naming a favorite ad predicted smoking
The participants who could name a favorite cigarette ad were more likely to begin smoking, the study found. Those who named a favorite cigarette ad in 2003—about 34% of the girls and 38% of the boys—were 50% more likely than their peers without a favorite ad to have started smoking by 2008, according to the study.
The increased popularity of Camel ads observed in the study from 2007 to 2008 suggests that the advertisements were reaching young women, the researchers say. The association between having a favorite cigarette ad and smoking, they argue, further suggests that the ads were encouraging kids and teens to smoke.
“The evidence speaks for itself,” says Donna Vallone, PhD, a co-author of the study and a senior vice president of research and evaluation at the American Legacy Foundation, an anti-smoking watchdog group created as part of the 1998 settlement. “If we’re really trying to prevent smoking initiation among youth, marketing such as this should—similar to flavored cigarettes—be banned.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned candy- and fruit-flavored cigarettes in September 2009, as part of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. As of this June, the new law will also ban cigarette advertising in magazines with at least 15% youth readership.
Maura Payne, the vice president of communications for R.J. Reynolds, says that the company targeted women—but not teen girls—with its No. 9 brand and ad campaign. “R.J. Reynolds adheres to numerous restrictions on how it markets its tobacco products and does not take any action to target youth,” Payne said in a statement.
According to the statement, all of the Camel No. 9 ads ran in magazines with readerships comprising at least 85% adults ages 18 and older. Payne emphasized that R.J. Reynolds has not run any print advertising for cigarettes for more than two years, and also stopped in-store advertising for the No. 9 brand in 2008.
Payne also pointed out that, in the interviews conducted for the study, Pierce and his colleagues asked only about the brand of advertised cigarette, rather than specific ads or ad campaigns (including that for No. 9’s).
R.J. Reynolds' claim that the company did not target underage customers rings hollow to Danny McGoldrick, vice president for research at the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an antismoking coalition of more than 130 nonprofits, medical associations, and corporations.
Nine out of 10 smokers pick up the habit before they are 18, McGoldrick says, and the industry has to target young people in order to replace the customers who quit—or die. “They’ve been doing that for a long time, they’ve been denying it for a long time, and they still keep doing it,” he says.
And even though the company says it restricted the No. 9 advertisements to magazines with predominantly adult readerships, the magazines were likely read by plenty of teens, Vallone says.
“This is like Virginia Slims all over again," she says, referring to the brand of cigarettes that Philip Morris notoriously began marketing to women in 1968. "This is a deadly product. This is not to be taken lightly. This is not to be glamorized.”