Mr. Johnston declined, however, a similar invitation from the openly hostile panel to kill the 6-year-old campaign that has revived R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s Camel brand and angered anti-tobacco activists, who contend the cartoon-based promotion targets youths.
Mr. Johnston and six other top-level tobacco executives underwent 6 hours of grueling, often contentious questioning in the highlight of yet another week of heat for the besieged tobacco industry.
The inquiry by the House Energy & Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Health & Environment specifically delved into reports, denied by the tobacco industry, that nicotine levels are manipulated to hook smokers.
But as with all congressional tobacco investigations, its focus expanded by the hour, eventually encompassing advertising, executive compensation and addiction.
Longtime tobacco nemesis Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) chaired the hearings, and the no-nonsense questioning by him and his cohorts was pointed, sometimes intimidating.
The hearing was ostensibly called to probe allegations that tobacco marketers manipulate nicotine levels, and tobacco executives were put on the defensive from the opening gavel.
Rep. Waxman had the seven executives testify under oath, a rarity at congressional hearings, and sprinkled dramatic episodes throughout. At one point, a 7-year-old boy was led to the witness table, where he complained to the tobacco executives that cigarette smoke aggravated his asthma and kept him from bowling.
Later, a poster-size photo of a cancer-ridden human mouth was mounted on an easel a few feet in front of the tobacco executives. And Joseph Taddeo, president of U.S. Tobacco Co., was forced to disclose his 1993 compensation package ($400,000 salary, bonus of $1 million).
"Exorbitant" was the reaction of Rep. Mike Synar (D., Okla.), a leading anti-tobacco lawmaker whose rapid-fire questioning often left the tobacco executives stammering for more time.
Tobacco industry officials believe their next major legislative battle will be against Rep. Synar's proposal to shift regulatory authority over tobacco from the Federal Trade Commission to the Food & Drug Administration. If successful, such a change would translate into major changes in how cigarettes are manufactured, sold and advertised.
Mr. Johnston and William Campbell, president-ceo of Philip Morris USA, did most of the industry's talking, and absorbed most of the panel's harangues.
Mr. Johnston repeatedly said the subcommittee should drop any pretense of objectivity and admit its true goal-tobacco prohibition.
"Four million documents," Mr. Johnston said, shaking his head at Rep. Synar's request to provide all Joe Camel-related materials. "And we've already given it all to the FTC.
"But I'm disappointed that they never came out and admitted what their real purpose is-banning tobacco," said Mr. Johnston, whose post-hearing accessibility made him a de facto industry spokesman. "If anyone can come up with any evidence to support the argument that the Joe Camel campaign causes kids to smoke, we'll pull it in a heartbeat. But it's not out there."
"They want an advertising ban ... they want prohibition," he said. "They won't stand up and say they want to ban cigarettes, so they'll sneak up on it by banning advertising." Attacking advertising is the first step on a "slippery slope," Mr. Johnston warned.