Is Big Tobacco Sweet-Talking Kids Into Smoking?

ByABC News
November 2, 2005, 3:51 PM

Nov. 2, 2005 — -- Despite all the known risks about smoking and the landmark 1998 promise by Big Tobacco not to target children under 18, each day 2,000 Americans aged 12 to 17 become regular smokers.

Public health officials place a lot of blame on the nation's cigarette companies. And at least four states are weighing whether to take legal action in an attempt to stop the companies from making flavored cigarettes with names such as "Beach Breezer," " Kuai Kolada," "Midnight Madness" and "Twista Lime."

"Right now I'm smoking Camel Exotic Blends, Mandarin Mints," said one high school smoker. "They are almost like candy. It appeals to kids."

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, along with his counterparts in at least three other states, is preparing for a possible court case -- accusing the makers of flavored cigarettes of targeting children.

"You get them addicted because they are attracted to this candy-flavored cigarette," Spitzer said. "You have them for the next 40 years."

RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. -- which manufactures some of the most popular brands -- refused to speak to ABC News. But the company has said, "We don't under any circumstance market our product to youth."

After the 1998 agreement by cigarette makers not to market to children, Joe Camel -- RJ Reynolds' popular mascot -- went the way of the dinosaur.

Seven years later, however, some prosecutors and public health advocates say tobacco companies have simply come up with new, more sophisticated -- and sometimes subtle -- methods to market to children.

"It's important to know that they're in it for the long haul, and they will find new and creative ways all the time to reach what they know is their future market, which is our kids," said Danny McGoldrick, research director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Since 1998, cigarette makers have increased their marketing budgets by 125 percent, to around $15 billion.

The vast majority of that money went toward making cigarettes cheaper, by paying stores to keep prices down. Companies also give out coupons and two-for-one deals.

Anti-smoking activists say the move is legal. But it is, in effect, an under-the-radar way of marketing to children, who, according to studies, smoke more when prices come down.

"If you can afford more," a high school smoker told ABC News, "you will smoke more usually."

The Philip Morris Co. says its price promotions are just a way to compete, not a way to target children.

But anti-smoking activists say cigarette makers are now increasingly turning to a group just a little a bit older: people in their early 20s.

How do they do it?

In New York City bars, for example, tobacco company representatives offer lighters and coupons for cigarettes to the young crowd.

All someone has to do is give them a driver's license, which is scanned into a massive marketing database.

"They're promoting aggressively to young smokers to cement those habits as they're moving from that experimentation to casual use stage to full-time addicted smoking," McGoldrick said.

While there's nothing illegal about that type of promotion, anti-smoking activists say it's yet another example of tobacco companies finding more creative ways of getting their message out.

"I kind of think of it like pushing a balloon," Spitzer said. "You push it here, it comes out here. There's a constant shifting of efforts on their part."

One state prosecutor recently said of the tobacco companies, "These guys are so smart, it's scary."

ABC News' Dan Harris filed this report for "World News Tonight."