SAN FRANCISCO — In a ruling hailed by anti-smoking activists, the state Supreme Court said Thursday that California and its citizens can sue tobacco companies over advertising campaigns that allegedly target teen-agers.
The court's decision permits a San Francisco woman to proceed with her lawsuit against the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which she accuses of improperly wooing children with its Joe Camel mascot, emblazoned on items ranging from T-shirts to beverage can holders.
Janet Mangini, a family law attorney who is suing as a private citizen, claims the Joe Camel ads violate the state's ban on unfair business practices by encouraging minors to smoke.
Hoping to avoid a trial, R.J. Reynolds argued that only the federal government can regulate its advertising. The court disagreed, saying that federal law does not bar states from controlling cigarette promotions--and in fact encourages states to prevent minors from lighting up.
"Congress left the states free to exercise their police power to protect minors from advertising that encourages them to break the law," Justice Armand Arabian wrote in the court's unanimous decision. Mangini, he said, may not be blocked by a "nicotine wall of congressional preemption."
William Lerach, an attorney for Mangini, said he was delighted with the decision. "We will now have the opportunity to prove what we know to be true--that this advertising campaign unlawfully targets minors," he said.
Robert Chartoff, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief for Mangini on behalf of former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, praised the court for "seeing through the legal smoke screen raised by the tobacco industry."
"We're pleased that the court has challenged R.J. Reynolds' right to exploit children, induce them to break the law and expose them to disease, disability and death," he said.
In Winston-Salem, N.C., a spokeswoman for R.J. Reynolds called the ruling "merely procedural" and said the tobacco giant will continue its Joe Camel advertisements.
"We are extremely confident that the fact that this campaign is directed at adult smokers will prevail in the end," said the spokeswoman, Peggy Carter.
Introduced in 1988, the Joe Camel character was initially used for the 75th anniversary of the brand. Wildly popular, the smirking cartoon mascot now appears on beach towels, baseball caps, windbreakers and numerous other items that can be had for free in exchange for proof-of-purchase receipts. Recently, Joe has been joined by a bunch of Josies, who are depicted as smoking Camels around a pool table in a bar.
According to Mangini's lawsuit, Camel sales to teen-agers surged from $6 million to $476 million in the four years after the debonair dromedary was introduced. Moreover, a 1991 survey by the Journal of the American Medical Assn.--a survey heartily disputed by the tobacco industry--found that some 6-year-olds were nearly as familiar with Joe Camel as with Mickey Mouse.
"Personally, I find it outrageous that this character who is an advocate for smoking has such recognition among children," Mangini said in an interview. "This is a hip and happening camel, with all the accouterments that young teens would want. By using it, R.J. Reynolds is being very irresponsible."
Anti-smoking advocates called Thursday's decision a major defeat for the tobacco industry. They noted that in early June, the Federal Trade Commission declined to take action against Joe Camel, concluding that there was insufficient evidence of a link between the character and teen-age smoking.
"Clearly, the FTC showed they were spineless and lacked the courage to act," said James Bergman, executive director of the group Stop Teen-age Addiction to Tobacco. "That's why the courts are becoming increasingly important. They are much less vulnerable to the wealth and power of the tobacco industry."
Mangini said she hopes her case will come to trial in San Francisco within a year. In addition to seeking a ban on the Joe Camel campaign, she wants R.J. Reynolds to forfeit to the state millions of dollars in profits obtained since the character's debut and to produce ads telling children that "smoking is not cool."
In a separate case Thursday that could have dramatic ramifications for California politics, the court agreed to consider whether to reinstate campaign contribution limits invalidated by a federal court.
The limits--$1,000 for individuals and $5,000 for political action committees--were part of Proposition 73, passed by 58% of the state's voters in 1988. The measure was adopted amid mounting criticism that the huge volume of campaign cash contributed by special-interest groups was having a corrupting influence on lawmakers.
While in effect, Proposition 73 had a significant impact, reducing the amount of campaign contributions to legislative races from $40 million in the 1988 election to $23.9 million in 1990. But in 1992, it was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Earlier this year, state Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco) asked the state Supreme Court to correct any unconstitutional provisions of the measure and reinstate the law. Thursday, the court agreed to at least take a look.
"I'm just delighted," said Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Placentia), an author of Proposition 73 who joined Kopp in petitioning the court. "I think this is potentially the best news for campaign finance reform since the passage of Proposition 73."
Times staff writer Eric Bailey contributed to this story from Sacramento.