Justice Dept. tries to nail cig ads

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The Justice Department, in its suit against leading tobacco marketers, is belatedly declaring illegal the same industry ads the U.S. Food & Drug Administration tried to ban four years ago.

The suit, filed Sept. 22 in U.S. District Court in Washington, charges that industry practices such as running ads in magazines where they can be seen by kids and classifying cigarettes as "light" and "ultralight" are part of a 45-year plan to mislead the U.S. public and government officials on tobacco safety.

The suit charges the tobacco marketers engaged in a conspiracy in violation of the Racketeer Influenced & Corrupt Organizations Act, and asks the companies be forced to give up the profits they made, and also to repay the billions the federal government spent treating tobacco caused illnesses.

ALLEGATION OF CONSPIRACY

The suit also makes reference to an unnamed ad agency that was allegedly told by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in 1991 to destroy documents about Joe Camel that were part of the conspiracy. Young & Rubicam, New York, handled Camel during most of 1991, before Mezzina/Brown was formed by two Y&R executives who took the account to a breakaway shop.

While the focus of the more than $120 billion suit filed against tobacco marketers isn't advertising--the companies are instead accused of misleading consumers about tobacco safety--marketing is repeatedly mentioned as a means to carry out the scheme.

The proposed FDA rules to limit tobacco imagery and ad placement were struck down by lower courts. The Supreme Court, however, will hear arguments this fall on the FDA's right to regulate tobacco.

The Justice Department's lawsuit seeks to recover the government's costs for treating tobacco-caused diseases and the profits earned by tobacco marketers. It suggests that even without the FDA rules, the ads and marketing were illegal because they were used in the deceit.

LABEL CONTROVERSY

The use of "light" and "ultralight" labels on cigarette has been attacked before by tobacco critics and the FDA, but the Federal Trade Commission has allowed the labels. Critics have contended the FTC's testing method for tar and nicotine falsely overstates the benefits of the light and ultralight products. The FTC has asked Congress to pass the job of testing cigarettes to the FDA.

The Justice Department charged in its suit that tobacco marketers which used the FTC's testing method "have marketed [low-tar and nicotine] products with claims such as `light' and 'ultra low-tar' to suggest that smokers inhale less tar and nicotine . . . There is no basis for believing they are safer."

The suit states that Lorillard Tobacco Co.'s 1975 ad campaign for True, RJR's 1976 effort for Vantage, along with several current campaigns, "continue to advertise their products . . . in a manner to lull smokers into believing that by using `low tar/low nicotine' cigarettes, reduce their exposure."

ADS TARGET KIDS?

The Justice Department also charged tobacco marketers aren't just accidentally reaching kids, but targeting them through advertising.

"Cigarette companies' advertising glamorizes smoking and its content is intended to entice young people to smoke, for example, as a right of passage into adulthood or as a status symbol," the brief says.

Tobacco marketers last week ripped the suit, labeling it political and declaring they had no intention of settling. An attorney for Philip Morris USA said the company would seek to have it dismissed.

Copyright September 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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