CHICAGO — The U.S. surgeon general, leaders of the American Medical Assn. and schoolchildren paraded through downtown Chicago Sunday to protest a cigarette-smoking cartoon camel they say is a merchant of death.
The two-mile parade, which featured "Dump the Hump" placards, marked the beginning of the AMA's annual meeting.
Among anti-smoking proposals to be considered during the five-day meeting is a recommendation for curbs on youth-oriented tobacco advertising, which Joe Camel represents to detractors.
"We might not succeed today or in our lifetime, but there's momentum growing," the surgeon general, Dr. Antonia C. Novello, said after the parade, which included about 250 people.
A spokeswoman for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the maker of Camel cigarettes, said the surgeon general's campaign is a diversion from the nation's No. 1 medical issue: health care reform.
"I can only speculate why during an election year she continues to hold press conferences against a brand that's only a minor player in youth smoking," company spokeswoman Maura Payne said.
Smoking among young people continues to decline. Only a small percentage of young people who smoke prefer Camel cigarettes, Payne said.
"Every day 3,000 children pick up their first cigarette because advertising says it's cool--smoke and you'll be popular," said the incoming AMA president, Dr. John L. Clowe, a family practitioner from Schenectady, N.Y.
"But we all know the truth," he said at a rally. "Smoking hurts people, smoking is a filthy habit and smoking kills people."
Novello and the AMA demanded in March that R. J. Reynolds drop the ads featuring the stylish camel. Results of a survey indicated 90% of children who were asked could identify Joe Camel as a messenger for cigarette smoking, she said.
She acknowledged that her battle against the camel has had no apparent effect on the ad campaign. Magazine publishers that carry the ads have said RJR has a right to promote its product.
"We're not against Camels. It's a legal product," said Novello, a pediatrician. "But we're against the cartoon. Whether intentionally or not, it has touched the kids."
Payne, the Reynolds spokeswoman, said youth smoking is down 35% over the last 15 years, and government statistics show 92% of the youngsters who do smoke use something other than Camel cigarettes, she said.
Payne disparaged a study cited by Novello and published in December in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. The study said Camel's share of the underage smoking market increased from 0.5% to 32.8% in the first three years of the Joe Camel campaign.
Government figures put Camel's share of the underage market in the single digits, indicating it increased from about 6% two years ago to 8% last March, Payne said.