California Judge Fines R.J. Reynolds $20M for Ads Aimed at Youth in Violation of Settlement
A California judge yesterday fined tobacco company R.J. Reynolds $20 million for "pursuing an advertising strategy that promotes youth smoking," a violation of the 1998 national tobacco settlement, the New York Times reports. Judge Ronald Prager of the Superior Court in San Diego, who oversees tobacco settlement compliance in the state, also ordered the company to stop placing ads in magazines with "a disproportionate number of teenage readers" (Winter, New York Times, 6/7). In his decision --the first to find a tobacco company's advertising in violation of the 1998 settlement -- Prager wrote, "It was, or should have been, apparent to the skillful and bright people who manage RJR's multimillion-dollar, sophisticated print advertising campaign that youth were exposed to tobacco advertising at levels substantially similar to targeted adult smokers" (Kaufman/Adler, Washington Post, 6/7). Prager noted that Reynolds advertises in magazines with "huge youth readerships" such as Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone, and that it "strains credibility" for the company to say it did not "consider how many children under 18 were exposed" to its advertising (New York Times, 6/7).
R.J. Reynolds said that it would appeal the decision, claiming it "impinges" on the tobacco company's First Amendment rights, the Post reports. In a statement released yesterday, the company said it advertises cigarettes in magazines with "at least" 75% adult readership -- a "more stringent" policy than the federal government recommends for the alcohol industry. "It sets a very dangerous precedent to sanction somebody $20 million for simply exercising a constitutional right to talk to adult smokers. No court can tell a company not to advertise in People magazine, Sports Illustrated or TV Guide," Jeh Johnson, a company attorney, said (Washington Post, 6/7).
Prager has given Reynolds 10 days to register any objections to the ruling, but he told the company's lawyers, "I don't intend to make any substantial changes." Although the decision is only binding in California, the Wall Street Journal reports that attorneys general in other states could come under "considerable political pressure to bring similar actions against Reynolds to ensure" its compliance in other states. Attorneys general offices in New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Pennsylvania assisted with the California case, and "almost all of the evidence presented at trial could be used in any state." Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the decision "sends a real warning shot across the bow of the entire industry. It means the master settlement agreement has meaning beyond the narrow, specific prohibitions and could form the basis for additional action" (Fairclough, Wall Street Journal, 6/7).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.