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RJ Reynolds Fined for Targeting Teens in Cigarette Magazine Ads

By Lisa Girion and Myron Levin
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- A San Diego judge fined RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. $20 million Thursday after finding that the nation’s No. 2 cigarette maker was targeting teenagers by advertising Camels and other brands in magazines such as InStyle, Spin and Hot Rod.

The fine is the first financial penalty imposed for a violation of the 1998 settlement of lawsuits against the tobacco companies filed by the attorneys general of 46 states. Under that settlement, the cigarette makers pledged to pay the states $246 million over 25 years.

At issue in this case was the companies’ agreement to take no action, “directly or indirectly, to target youth.” Although the 1998 settlement made no specific mention of magazine advertising, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer had charged RJR last year with breaching the agreement by placing ads in magazines popular with readers under age 18.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Prager agreed that such advertisements violated that ban, and he ordered RJR to “reduce youth exposure” to its cigarette ads and to demonstrate its compliance.

RJR’s top lawyer said the company would appeal, and he maintained that its advertising strategy complies with the settlement by avoiding any publication that draws 25 percent or more of its readership from youths.

“The attorney general conceded that we have no specific intent to target youth with magazine advertising, and that we do not purposefully attempt to expose youth to our advertising,” said Charles Blixt, RJR’s general counsel. This ruling “says that if we advertise in magazines whose readership is overwhelmingly adults and some kids may see cigarette advertising in the magazine, that is a violation of the provision that we do nothing to target youth.

“It’s inconsistent with the agreement,” Blixt said. “It’s inconsistent with the law, and it’s inconsistent with our First Amendment right to advertise to adults in these magazines.”

Anti-smoking organizations hailed the ruling as a sign that the 1998 settlement will be vigorously enforced. “This is a shot across the bow to RJ Reynolds,” said Matt Myers, president of the Washington-based National Center for Tobacco Free Kids. “This decision gives real teeth to the settlement agreement’s prohibitions against marketing to children and is a critical judicial finding that RJ Reynolds continued to target kids long after the settlement.”

In the wake of the November 1998 settlement, tobacco companies imposed their own guidelines for curtailing the number of readers under 18 who might see pitches for cigarettes. Philip Morris, the nation’s No. 1 tobacco company, pledged to refrain from advertising in magazines with more than 15 percent youth readership. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. says it observes a 15 percent limit. Lorillard Tobacco says it restricts it ads to magazines with 18 percent youth readers or less.

With the highest self-imposed limit of 25 percent youth readers, Reynolds is viewed by Lockyer’s office as the most aggressive of the tobacco companies in its tactics for pitching its brands. “They’re always pushing the envelope as to what they can get away with,” said one attorney in Lockyer’s office, “so as a result they’re going to get sued more.”