WASHINGTON — Three years after rejecting claims that the controversial Joe Camel cigarette ads are targeted at children, the Federal Trade Commission revealed Wednesday that it has new evidence in the case and that its investigators are once again urging a complaint against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Camel's maker, for unfair advertising.
The disclosure revives one of the most bitter controversies in the nation's cigarette wars and comes as yet another blow to the beleaguered cigarette industry. Last week, another manufacturer, Liggett Group, admitted that nicotine is addictive and that the industry markets to underage smokers, in a historic legal settlement.
The FTC, which enforces truth-in-advertising laws, declined to say what new evidence has become available.
"There is new evidence from 1994," said Victoria Streitfeld, the agency's spokeswoman. "I cannot talk about what that is."
But experts in tobacco litigation said the Food and Drug Administration's effort to regulate cigarette advertising, as well as state lawsuits against the industry, have recently yielded confidential documents that could bolster an FTC case against Reynolds, the nation's second-largest cigarette manufacturer.
"There are internal documents that have come out that indicate R.J. Reynolds had begun in the early 1970s to become extremely envious of Philip Morris because Marlboro had a lock on the kiddie market," said Dick Daynard, a tobacco litigation expert at Northeastern University in Boston. "They show how deliberately RJR was planning this campaign and that they certainly knew that their future depended on getting kids to smoke their brands. And then Joe Camel appeared on the scene."
Reynolds, for its part, is defending its cartoon dromedary, saying there is "no basis to file a complaint against the campaign." The company has long maintained that, while the saxophone-blowing, pool-shooting Joe Camel may be extremely recognizable to young people, his hip image does not entice young people to begin smoking.
In 1994, the year the FTC last investigated Joe Camel, Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Reynolds hired the Roper organization to conduct a survey of youth attitudes toward the campaign. The survey found that 95% of 10- to 17-year-olds identified Joe Camel as a logo for cigarettes but that among those youths, 97% had negative views about smoking.
In 1994, the FTC sided with Reynolds. Overruling a staff recommendation, the commissioners, in a 3-2 vote, decided to close their investigation into possible violations.
But last July, a bipartisan group of 67 congressional members, led by Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), wrote to the FTC asking that the investigation be reopened. The agency initiated a new investigation, and two weeks ago its director of consumer protection recommended that administrative charges once again be brought against the company.
Some observers said it is possible that the FTC will reverse its 1994 decision. The commission's makeup has changed since then, and the new chairman, Robert Pitofksy, is said to be more consumer-oriented than his predecessor.
In addition, "we probably now have five or six times more evidence than we did when they first considered the case," said Joseph DiFranza, a University of Massachusetts researcher who initiated the first complaint.
In 1991, DiFranza published one of the first studies linking Joe Camel advertisements to the brand preferences of teen smokers. He found that Camel cigarettes were 10 times as popular among teenagers as adults. Since that time, he said, at least half a dozen new articles have been published in medical literature buttressing his findings.
In particular, he cited a British ad campaign using a figure similar to Joe Camel, called "Reg." The British government, DiFranza said, was able to document that teen smoking increased during the Reg campaign--only in areas where the ads were shown.
Now it will be up to the FTC to consider that new evidence. The commissioners can decide to reject the staff recommendations and close the case, or they can decide to file an administrative complaint. If a complaint is filed, Reynolds can negotiate a settlement, in which the FTC could demand that the advertisements be significantly changed or withdrawn. Or the company could ask for an administrative hearing, which would be open to the public.
Like other tobacco companies, Reynolds is already waging an intense court battle to stave off far-reaching FDA restrictions on cigarette advertising. The FDA restrictions, if upheld in court, would reduce most cigarette ads to simple black-and-white text, severely restricting campaigns such as Joe Camel.