WARNING: Cigarette makers are finding new ways around the law that requires them to place health precaution labels in their print advertisements.
Four consumer groups are protesting new print ads for Marlboro Medium cigarettes that began appearing in dozens of newspapers nationally last week. The groups contend that Philip Morris, which makes the Marlboro brand, failed to place adequate warning labels in its ads.
"It's outrageous," said Sidney Wolf, executive director of Ralph Nader's Washington-based consumer group Public Citizen. "Someone could see the ad and think, 'Hey, here's a cigarette that has no hazards.' "
Philip Morris insists that the ad is perfectly legal. "We have designed this ad as we do all ads in compliance with FTC (Federal Trade Commission) regulations," said Leslie C. Zuke, director of communications at Philip Morris.
The controversy is just the latest in a series of escalating image problems that have dogged the tobacco industry during the past few years. Some critics contend that if the giant tobacco firms are allowed to get away with seemingly minor infractions they will continue to seek out larger loopholes.
Other critics say that each time the tobacco companies find--and take advantage of--loopholes in the laws that regulate their advertising, they only come closer to forcing Congress to ban all domestic tobacco advertising.
"The tobacco companies have used every trick available to get around putting up required health warnings," said John F. Banzhaf, executive director of the Washington-based Action on Smoking & Health. "But this latest ad might be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Their attitude seems to be, 'Let's cheat as much as we can.' "
The latest controversy concerns a print ad for Marlboro Medium that runs on two unconnected pages. When the ads appear in a newspaper, the first segment is on a right-hand page, bearing a picture of a cowboy boot and the slogan: "Introducing a special place in Marlboro Country."
The next newspaper page has no Marlboro ad. One page later, the ad begins again, with a picture of the new product and the health warning. Readers of the first page are pitched the Marlboro mystique with no health warning. If they do not turn the page, they never see the warning at all.
Consumer groups protesting the ads say they distort the intention of the federal guidelines that regulate them. The company disagrees.
"Consecutive-page advertising has been used by the tobacco industry for years," said Philip Morris' Zuke, adding that the ad in question fits into that category.
The FTC is not pleased with the ad, either. "It's a glitch in the law," said Judith Wilkenfeld, associate director of the division of advertising practice. "Is it allowed? Yes. Is it right to do? No."
Marlboro Medium is not alone as a target for criticism about tobacco marketing practices.
Last year, R. J. Reynolds' marketing ethics were questioned by consumer groups when word got out that the company planned to target African Americans with its proposed "Uptown" brand and blue-collar women with its new "Dakota" brand. Uptown has never been offered to the public, but Dakota is for sale in some regions.
Meanwhile, some anti-tobacco groups also accused the company of marketing to children with the snout-nosed cartoon camel that appears in its Camel cigarette ads.
In 1989, Philip Morris embraced the Bill of Rights in a massive TV ad campaign that some critics say was the result of a legal loophole allowing the tobacco company to advertise on television.
That same year, Philip Morris paid $350,000 for prominent placement of Lark cigarettes in the James Bond movie, "License to Kill," prompting criticism from consumer groups and at least one congressman.
Some critics say the FTC has been too lenient toward tobacco advertising. "The FTC is very willing to find loopholes whether they exist or not," said Joe Tye, executive director of the Springfield, Mass.-based Stop Teen-age Addiction to Tobacco.
Added Banzhaf: "We hope that we can go before Congress and say, 'Look at these people (tobacco companies), they're always poking and finding ways around restrictions.' Barring tobacco advertising is the only answer in the long run."
For years, tobacco makers have inserted multi-page fold-out ads into magazines such as Playboy and Spin that contain warning labels on only one or two pages of the fold-outs. An eight-page fold-out of the Marlboro car racing team that appeared in Sports Illustrated last year included only a single warning label on the last page.
Some cigarette companies have been further testing the law recently by running full-page cigarette ads--aimed at grocers and druggists--in trade publications such as Supermarket Business and Drugstore News that contain no warning labels at all.
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