Leaders of the U.S. cigar industry have pledged to stop placing their products in movies and on television, a controversial practice that has come under mounting attacks from members of Congress and anti-tobacco organizations fearful of the impact of Hollywood on children.
The board of directors of the Cigar Association of America, the industry trade group whose members produce more than 95 percent of cigars sold in the United States, has amended its guidelines on advertising standards to "admonish" its members to halt the practice, which cigar makers had employed in such high-profile films as "Independence Day" and the television show "Friends."
"It represents a strong commitment by the board," Norman F. Sharp, the cigar association's president, said yesterday. "It says cigars should not use paid placements or donate cigars to television production companies or movies. We believe this has always been an exception rather than a standard practice, and this reflects that the board is committed to ensuring this is never an issue again."
The industry-wide action follows pledges by two of the nation's largest cigar manufacturers, General Cigar Holdings Inc. and J.C. Newman Cigar Co., in a series of articles published by The Sun in January. The articles documented how cigar manufacturers paid Hollywood brokers to feature their product in the movies, a stealth marketing practice called product placement that critics say sways young consumers to smoke.
The stories also showed how cigar makers planned their resurrection over nearly two decades, targeted women, the young and the wealthy, manipulated the media and eluded government regulators despite the product's known health hazards.
Rep. Michael Bilirakis, a Florida Republican and chairman of the Commerce subcommittee on health and environment, said yesterday he intends to hold the industry to its agreement to oppose product placement.
"I believe this will reduce children's exposure to cigars on the TV and in the movies," he said. "This will have a substantive effect."
Congress began to apply pressure on the cigar industry during a Feb. 25 hearing of the House Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection. Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, blasted the industry for luring teen-agers by placing cigars in the hands of popular actors, such as Will Smith, the brash young hero of "Independence Day."
"You can't convince me that watching Will Smith or watching some kid, young actor, on 'Friends,' isn't a powerful example to that young boy, and now young girl, to start the habit," Markey said during the hearing. "And I want you to tell me that your industry's going to stop completely targeting advertising at those young people."
Sharp, the cigar association's president, told the congressman that the industry would support ending the practice of cigar product placements.
Bilirakis, considered a friend of tobacco until he stopped taking industry campaign contributions in 1995, was not convinced.
In a March 3 letter to the cigar association, the congressman wrote, "I would like to see that pledge in writing. Often real reform begins with someone taking a stand. By making this commitment, the cigar industry would be taking a definitive stand against the glamorization of smoking by Hollywood that may influence the attitudes of young people."
A day later, Sharp sent a letter to Bilirakis, agreeing to his request.
"While our members value their First Amendment rights and are flatly opposed to censorship, they are equally serious about their desire to keep cigar smoking as a pastime reserved for adults," Sharp wrote. "For that reason, our board of directors has moved to amend the voluntary Cigar Advertising Standards to admonish against subsidizing the use of cigars in movies or television productions through paid or donated cigar placements or otherwise."
Despite the industry's pledge, anti-tobacco activists remain skeptical.
"These are people who kill people," said Stanton A. Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. "I don't believe it. If Congress wants to do something, they should make it illegal, an enforceable law."
Congress thought it had already stamped out the practice of tobacco product placement nearly a decade ago. Under pressure from federal authorities, the Tobacco Institute, the industry's lobbyist, voluntarily announced in December 1990 the end of paid tobacco product placements in films.
But those promises came from cigarette companies that made direct payments to moviemakers. Unfettered, cigar companies went on to employ middlemen, product-placement firms, to do the job in the 1990s, according to internal industry documents and interviews.
Among the most successful were J.C. Newman Cigar, one of the nation's oldest and largest private cigar makers, which placed its products in "Independence Day" and another hit, "The First Wives Club," and General Cigar, a leading premium cigar manufacturer, which also placed its cigars in "Independence Day" as well as several television shows, including "Friends."
Aided by product placement, cigars have flourished on screen. Actors lighted cigars in 51 of 133 movies with a domestic box-office draw of at least $5 million in the most recent film survey by the American Lung Association.
Pub Date: 3/21/98