New studies demonstrate that the cartoon camel at the center of an elaborate advertising campaign for Camel cigarettes appeals far more to children than to adults.
Several researchers suggest that this and similar campaigns are such a pernicious influence on the nation's health that cigarette advertising should be totally banned.
The researchers, from universities around the country, singled out the Camel cigarette campaign involving a cartoon character called Old Joe Camel. Although R. J. Reynolds, the tobacco company that produces Camels, said its advertisements were aimed at adults, the researchers said the campaign has been "far more successful at marketing Camel cigarettes to children than to adults."
The new studies were among several on cigarettes published in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The journal reports are the first to document how strongly the advertisements have influenced children's smoking behavior. Very young children see, understand and remember the advertisements, even better than adults, the researchers said.
Although there has not been an overall increase in smoking by children and teen-agers since the cartoon campaigns began three years ago, the researchers said they feared the advertisements were undermining educational efforts about the hazards of smoking and luring youths into becoming addicted smokers.
Officials at R. J. Reynolds said the campaign was aimed at smokers in their 20s, not children, and they denied that it had changed smoking habits of people under 18.
"It's not in our interest to have a campaign that encourages underage people to smoke because that would greatly increase the chance that the government would step in and restrict our ability to communicate with the adult smoking market," said Peggy Carter, spokeswoman for R. J. Reynolds, a subsidiary of RJR-Nabisco.
She insisted that the Old Joe Camel "smooth character" campaign was designed to stop a long-standing shrinkage of the brand's share of the market.
She said that according to the company's market analysis, which surveys only adult smokers, 2 percent of the smokers of Camels at most were under 18, and that the campaign had succeeded at keeping Camel's market share at about 4 percent but had not resulted in any overall growth.
But one group of researchers said their study showed that since the start of the Old Joe campaign, the brand had become the choice ofone-quarter to one-third of smokers under the age of 18. Before the campaign began, they said, less than 1 percent of children smoked Camels, according to statistics gathered by federal health authorities.
The study, conducted during the last school year among 1,060 high school students from five regions of the country, found that "Camel's share of the illegal children's cigarette market segment has increased to 32.8 percent from 0.5 percent, representing sales estimated at $476 million per year."
Even without cigarette advertising on television, another study showed, 6-year-old children were as familiar with Old Joe Camel as they were with the Mickey Mouse logo for the Disney Channel.
The findings prompted the researchers and Representative Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., who wrote an accompanying editorial in the Journal, to urge a total ban on cigarette advertising, which, according to an industry policy, is not supposed to be aimed at children.
But Dr. John P. Pierce, a cancer prevention specialist at the University of California at San Diego, said that the industry's stated intent is meaningless when the facts speak otherwise.
In 1990, Dr. Pierce found that among 5,040 California youths, 22 percent of girls and 25 percent of boys who smoked chose Camels. His study, as well as others in the Journal, suggest that stabilization of the Camels' share of the market resulted in large part from the dramatic increase in young Camel smokers.
He said that the promotional giveaways for Camels are an additional draw for youths, in addition to print and billboard advertisements. With each package, consumers receive one unit Camel cash, a "C-note." Three so-called C-notes can be traded for a T-shirt with the cartoon Camel on it, 10 for a Camel baseball cap, 25 for a Camel watch and 75 for a Camel-emblazoned inflatable mattress with a radio.
"These are all items that kids would want, and the only way to get them it to buy Camel cigarettes," Dr. Pierce said.
"RJR spent $100 million in 1990 both on its advertising campaign and on promotional giveaways of items that are appealing to adolescents," Dr. Pierce and his colleagues reported. "The greatest recognition of the Camel advertising campaign occurred in the youngest age group examined in this study," those 12 to 13.
In another study, among 229 preschoolers conducted by researchers at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, about percent of 3-year-olds and more than 90 percent of 6-year-olds correctly linked Old Joe Camel to a cigarette.
Dr. Paul M. Fischer of the college's department of family medicine and his co-authors concluded that "while cigarette companies claim that they do not intend to market to children, their intentions are irrelevant if advertising affects what children know."
With the Camel logo as effective as Mickey Mouse in reaching 6-year-olds, they said, "cigarette advertising may be an important health risk for children."
In another study conducted among high school students from five regions of the country and among adults in Massachusetts, the young people were found to be far more familiar with the Camel logo than the adults were.
More than 90 percent of the youngsters, but only 58 percent of adults, correctly named the brand associated with the cartoon character. The children also rated the advertisements as more appealing.