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National Perspective | PUBLIC HEALTH

Tobacco Ads' Impact Debatable, Except to Some Lawmakers

Congressional critics are eager for a ban but experts are divided over whether industry pitches woo nonsmokers.

March 19, 1998|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Joe Camel is on his deathbed, a victim of public disapproval and charges by the Federal Trade Commission that R.J. Reynolds used the cartoon character to promote "a dangerous and addictive product" to those too young to purchase cigarettes legally.

In his place, however, RJR has put a seductive young woman in a sleeveless black dress tipping a martini glass to her lips, a small pack of Camels just below the drink.

Is this sensuous woman an improvement over Joe Camel? Many members of Congress don't think so. That helps explain why they are pressing hard for an ironclad guarantee in the national tobacco settlement that the industry will voluntarily stop virtually all advertising.

Such a sweeping ban would have to be voluntary; a legislated ban would run afoul of the industry's 1st Amendment right to free speech. Of all the concessions made by the tobacco industry last year in its effort to settle 40 damage suits filed by the states, the advertising ban is the only major one that cannot be imposed by Congress.

So eager are some members of Congress to get the advertising ban that they say they are prepared to give in to the tobacco industry's chief demand: partial immunity from future lawsuits brought by smokers seeking recompense for the damage done by their habit.

But in their zeal for advertising restraints, lawmakers may be exaggerating the effectiveness that Joe Camel, the Marlboro Man and other tobacco promotions have in hooking young people on cigarettes. Those who study the issue have decidedly mixed views on the role of advertising in luring new smokers.

Some experts believe advertising has almost no effect. Even those who believe it does are convinced there are other more significant factors than the sultry young lady in the new Camel ads.

"If you [could do] only one thing to discourage smoking, the best evidence we have is on price increases," said Michael P. Ericksen, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's office of smoking and health. He cites statistics showing that a 10% increase in the price of cigarettes spells a 7% reduction in the number of kids who start smoking.

Some economists go further still.

"I don't believe that advertising has anything to do with kids' decisions to smoke," says Jack Calfee, an American Enterprise Institute economist who formerly worked on tobacco issues for the FTC.

Peer pressure and family attitudes are far better predictors of whether children will become smokers than advertising is, Calfee said. "If your friends smoke, you're more likely to smoke," he said. "If your parents smoke, you're more likely to smoke."

Tobacco advertising has risen and fallen through the years, according to this view, with little apparent impact on consumption. Adult smokers, 43% of the population in 1966, have declined steadily to 25% in 1995. Meanwhile, smoking rates are growing among minors.

Likewise, black youths are only one-third as likely as whites to smoke, according to government studies, even though tobacco industry documents--disclosed recently as part of court proceedings--suggest that cigarette makers have gone out of their way to appeal to young blacks.

Few analysts, however, go as far as Calfee.

"Advertising is a significant influence," said Kenneth Warner, an economist at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health who was chief scientific editor of the 1989 surgeon general's 25th anniversary report on smoking.

"Is it the most important influence?" Warner asked. "Absolutely not. Increasing the price of cigarettes--a lot--is far and away the most important thing we can do to reduce youth smoking."

The tobacco industry, which spends billions of dollars a year on advertising, clearly believes it is worthwhile. In 1995 the industry spent $4.9 billion on advertising, marketing and promotion, according to the FTC.

But the industry claims the purpose is to woo smokers from one brand to another, not to turn young people into smokers.

"Advertising can only do one of two things: reinforce the brand-buying decision of the person who is already a buyer of that product, and give a customer a compelling reason to give a competitor a shot," said RJR spokeswoman Peggy Carter. "Certainly kids are aware of advertising for a wide range of adult products, but there's no implication that they are going to use the product."

Government studies dispute the industry's contention that advertising does not encourage youths to smoke. They show that the most heavily advertised brands--Camel, Marlboro and Newport--are also those most frequently chosen by underage smokers.

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