WASHINGTON — Fashioned-themed advertisements for Camel No. 9 brand cigarettes featuring a shocking pink logo have piqued the interest of teenage girls in what health advocates say is just another example of the tobacco industry's long history of exploiting women.
Within a year of the ads' debut in 2007 in such magazines as Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Glamour, the number of girls in a five-year study who identified the brand as their favorite cigarette campaign nearly doubled.
A study, featured in the April issue of the journal Pediatrics, tracked more than 1,036 adolescents beginning when they were between 10 and 13 years old in 2003, and found that teens who can name a favorite cigarette ad are more than 50 percent more likely to take up smoking than their peers are.
Anti-smoking activists are calling foul, claiming the campaign, which featured promotional giveaways such as flavored lip balm and cell phone jewelry, violates the industry's 1998 agreement to stop targeting advertisements to the underage.
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R.J. Reynolds spokesman David Howard said the company takes issue with several points that relate to the study, most notably the absence of a question asking if any of the participants had actually seen Camel No. 9 print advertisements.
Howard also contested the study's assertion that Camel's overall market share increased sharply after the campaign's launch. He said it's held steady, and noted that Camel No. 9 has only ever had a 0.6 percent share of the market. He pointed to a survey conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan that shows youth smoking continued to decline despite the Camel No. 9 campaign.
"There seems to be a disconnect between the claims they make in their study and the actual facts," he said.
A two-year Federal Trade Commission investigation of the Camel No. 9 campaign, proposed by lawmakers, ended in June with no complaints filed.
After a public outcry from members of Congress, watchdog groups and the attorneys general of Ohio and California, the print ads were pulled in late 2008.
"The industry said they weren't going to market to kids but that has never stopped them before so we were monitoring because we never know what to expect from them," said study author John Pierce, a professor of family and preventive medicine and the director of the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at the Moores Cancer Center at the University of California, San Diego. "To be honest, I wasn't expecting it to be so blatant."
Others are not so surprised, however, noting that the tobacco industry has marketed smoking to women as a sign of trendiness, empowerment and sex appeal since the early 20th century, including campaigns like Lucky Strikes' 1927 "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet."
American Legacy Foundation director Cheryl Healton recalls puffing a Virginia Slim on the Princeton University campus before it began admitting women as students in 1969 and thinking of her cigarette, marketed with the slogan, "You've come a long way baby," as a right the university wouldn't grant her.
"The tobacco industry basically absconded (with) the women's liberation movement of the early '70s and made it into being a smoker — ads featured women getting the right to vote and the right to an education, and suggested smoking was akin to liberation. And it worked," she said.
Smoking was considered a men's-only activity a century ago until tobacco companies began aggressively targeting the largely untapped female market.
Decades later, lung cancer rates among women have increased steadily while those among men have declined. Lung cancer is now the leading cause of cancer deaths among women, killing 30,000 more women each year than breast cancer does, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While youth smoking rates have continued to drop since 1997, the decrease has plateaued during the past several years, leading Healton to declare "a historical crisis point" in which anti-smoking activists should work especially hard to keep rates down. About 80 percent of smokers take their first puffs before age 18.
"The reality is the tobacco industry can't remain in business in the U.S. if it doesn't recruit adolescent users as replacement smokers," she said.
Other health advocates, however, are setting their sights on preventing the export of similar advertising tactics to women overseas, which the World Health Organization brands the single largest marketing opportunity in the world.
Nancy Kaufman, a former vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who's currently working on updating a World Health Organization report on the global marketing of tobacco to women, said cigarette manufacturers are setting their sights on creating cultural change in countries such as China and Japan where smoking by women is still considered taboo, just as it was in the U.S. nearly a century ago.
"The advertising strategies the tobacco is using — with products like light or slim cigarettes — repeat themselves all over the world," she said.
In a statement issued by the American Cancer foundation after the study was posted online Monday, Thomas J. Glynn, the director of Cancer Science and Trends and International Cancer Control, also sounded the warning bell.
"Other countries should beware of the results of this research, as well — since the tobacco industry realizes that their greatest profits in the future lay in the developing world, they will use the findings . . . to entice children from around the world to begin a lifetime of addiction, disease, and, for many, eventual death by tobacco," he said.
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