Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Free smokes, thanks to big tobacco

Associated Press Writer

        LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It's 9:30 at the Back Door Lounge and the line on this Tuesday night is already 10 deep. But these people aren't waiting for the bar's famous bourbon and Cokes. The line is for the cigarettes: They're free.

        Representatives of R.J. Reynolds — maker of Camel, Winston and Salem brands — show up twice a week to hand out two free packs to anyone willing to show ID, answer a couple of consumer questions and sign a waiver promising not to sue.

        “I'd just keep going back and giving them fake names,” says smoker Ryan Arms. “Some nights I would walk out of there with two cartons.”

        Arms, 24, is old enough to buy cigarettes on his own. But anti-smoking activists say handing out free cigarettes to twentysomethings at bars is comparable to marketing tactics alleged to target minors.

        In a California case earlier this month, R.J. Reynolds was fined $20 million for pitching cigarettes to teens in youth-oriented magazines. Superior Court Judge Ronald Prager ruled that the company violated a landmark 1998 settlement with 46 states that barred Big Tobacco from taking “any action, directly or indirectly, to target youth.”

        American Cancer Society Kentucky government relations director Cindy Adams says the bar giveaways venture into the same territory.

        “Our opposition to this practice,” Adams says, “is that the tobacco industry is giving away an addictive product that costs them very little and ensures them a steady stream of new customers.”

        But R.J. Reynolds spokesman David Howard says the company's free sampling is used to attract new customers, not new smokers.

        “We're trying to get adult smokers of competitive brands to try our brands,” Howard says. “It's a very responsible and effective way for us to communicate with adult smokers.”

        Philip Morris, the nation's leading cigarette manufacturer with such brands as Marlboro and Virginia Slims, does not use free sampling, spokesman Billy Abshaw says.

        Abshaw says the company does sponsor bar and nightclub events, where participants can win trips and other prizes, but that cigarettes are not given out or even sold at the events.

        Free sampling, in any environment, “violates the spirit,” of the tobacco companies' 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with the states, Abshaw says.

        “When you have 50 percent of the market, you don't really have to sample,” Howard says of Philip Morris. Howard estimates that just under a quarter of the approximately 46 million U.S. smokers use R.J. Reynolds brands.

        Howard says R.J. Reynolds has been sponsoring bar and nightclub events — with some type of sampling involved — for over 20 years. Prior to the 1998 settlement agreement — which prohibits companies from sampling outside of age-restricted establishments — Howard says R.J. Reynolds would distribute cigarettes at NASCAR events.

        Now, the company is appealing a court-imposed $14.8 million fine for breaking a California law by giving away free cigarettes at public events where children were present. More than 100,000 packages of cigarettes were given away at six events held on public property in 1999 and 2000.

        Adams of the American Cancer Society says handing out cigarettes in places where minors are restricted — such as bars and nightclubs — does not break any Kentucky state laws, but that doesn't make it OK.

        “A group will likely continue to smoke if they're given free samples,” she says.

        It wasn't free cigarettes that got Scott Carney smoking at age 14, but the Winston smoker says Tuesday and Thursday nights at the Back Door are a matter of economics.

        “I'm leaning toward the blue-collar side of the scale so I'll take what I'm given,” says the 23-year-old novice filmmaker and cameraman.

        But Carney also agrees with Adams, saying it's not the cigarettes that are attractive as much as the cheapness.

        “I think the people that are most vulnerable are the ones that don't smoke on a regular basis, but are encouraged are do so because of the marketing gimmicks of the tobacco corporations, because they're being handed something,” he says.


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