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Joe Camel will stand trial, perhaps as early as next year, on charges of trying to lure children into smoking.

In a case sure to draw the attention of marketers everywhere, California Superior Court in San Francisco will hear the case about the controversial but hugely successful ad campaign built around a cartoon camel for a once dormant brand in the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. stable.

The U.S. Supreme Court last week re-fused to consider arguments by RJR that the 1969 Federal Cigarette Labeling & Advertising Act insulated tobacco marketers from state claims. That let stand a California Supreme Court ruling that didn't address the merits of the misleading advertising suit, but merely authorized a trial to proceed.

"We are neither surprised nor disappointed," said Peggy Carter, RJR manager of media relations. "We knew it was a long shot. We feel there is no basis for the complaint and that discovery and depositions will affirm what the Federal Trade Commission found ... that there is no evidence that the campaign caused underage smoking."

Ms. Carter was referring to the FTC's refusal earlier this year to support its staff's recommendation to issue a misleading ad complaint against RJR and Camel for targeting minors. But contrary to RJR's claim, the FTC was divided on whether evidence supported issuing a complaint. The five-member commission split 2-2, with one abstention, on whether to issue the complaint.

Alan Mansfield, attorney for the California woman who filed suit against RJR in 1991, said his legal challenge remains the same. He will attempt to show RJR intentionally targeted minors with its ads, or that, upon learning the campaign affected youths, it failed to amend the now 6-year-old campaign. He expects the trial to begin within 18 months.

Mr. Mansfield said articles from the Journal of the American Medical Association, several U.S. surgeon general reports and papers, and surveys from foreign countries all support the contention that RJR intentionally targeted children to revive sales of Camel. That, he added, was in direct violation of a 100-year-old California statute prohibiting the sale of cigarettes to minors.

Mr. Mansfield said he expects to find supporting evidence in RJR documents that come forward during discovery proceedings.

Ms. Carter noted the plaintiffs will be subjected to similar pre-trial explorations, and said RJR might question the scientists who authored the studies that appeared in the AMA's Journal.

"As a consequence of the Joe Camel campaign, Camel has become the brand of choice among minors in California," Mr. Mansfield said. "The downward trend of juvenile smoking in [California], which had reached an all-time low in 1988, reversed when defendants initiated the Joe Camel campaign in that same year ... one study estimates that teen smokers accounted for $476 million of Camel sales in 1991, compared with just $6 million garnered before the Camel campaign."

Defendants in the lawsuit also include RJR Nabisco, the tobacco marketer's parent company; McCann-Erickson USA, New York, RJR's main agency when the campaign was developed; Young & Rubicam Inc., which inherited the campaign; and Mezzina/Brown, which now handles the campaign.

Besides seeking an end to Joe Camel, the suit asks that RJR and its agencies be forced to disgorge all "ill-gotten gains" linked to the campaign and the Camel sales it generated. And Mr. Mansfield has asked the court to order a corrective media campaign in California "in sufficient magnitude so as to negate the effect of the Joe Camel advertisements."

Ira Teinowitz contributed to this story.

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