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Cigarette ad campaigns turn aggressive as sales sag

Tobacco companies, vying for what many industry analysts say is a shrinking market for their products, are stepping up promotional campaigns, including sports-related advertising, in an effort to shore up sales.

Rising prices, due in part to an 8-cent federal excise tax that went into effect Jan. 1, are pushing cigarettes toward the $1 a pack mark. One industry analyst predicts that for the first time a family with two smokers may spend over $1,000 a year on tobacco products in 1983. The higher prices, along with the mounting efforts of antismoking groups and stronger health warnings from the US surgeon general's office, have led analysts and marketing executives within the industry to predict a drop in sales of from 2 to 16 percent this year.

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As a result, tobacco companies, estimated to have spent $1.24 billion on advertising in 1980 alone, are fighting back with new promotion efforts. One growing technique employs magazine and newspaper advertisements with coupons offering cents off or free packs. According to Advertising Age magazine, industry leader R. J. Reynolds Company conducted its largest coupon ''drop'' ever in December when it offered a $10 rebate on the purchase of four cartons of cigarettes. The ad appeared in 50 million Sunday editions.

In another move, Reynolds has doubled the number of papers that carry its controversial ''Camel Scoreboard,'' which lists sports scores and standings surrounded by a cigarette ad. The company pays a ''premium'' price to run its ad in this way, according to a Reynolds spokeswoman. Many newspapers that ordinarily accept cigarette advertising have refused to run the ads because of concerns over ''fuzzing'' the distinction between news stories and ads in the minds of readers.

The combination ad-sports scoreboard now appears in about 150 newspapers, including some large circulation dailies such as the New York Post and Daily News. Although Reynolds says it asks that no results of games involving minors (high school or younger) be reported, a spot check of two Boston-area papers that carry the once-weekly feature shows that both list high school schedules or results within the space.

Industry spokesmen say that these advertising techniques are meant only to attract a larger share of adults who already smoke. ''If you're not a smoker, we don't want you to become a smoker,'' insists Ellen Merlo, director of marketing communications for Philip Morris U.S.A. ''But if you have made the choice of your own free will to smoke, we hope you'll choose our product.''

Industry officials also adamantly deny that manufacturers seek to broaden their market by inducing more youths to smoke. A voluntary code adopted by the industry in 1965 prohibits advertising ''directed primarily to persons under 21 years of age.'' But antismoking groups argue that cigarette manufacturers continue to target a youthful audience by promoting concerts and sports events that appeal to youths and by using sports-oriented advertising.

Among events sponsored by cigarette companies are jazz and folk concerts and competitions in sports such as skiing, rodeo, tennis, golf, stock-car racing, and ice hockey. By backing these events, argue antismoking groups, cigarette brand names are also shown on television (as a way around the 12-year-old ban of cigarette ads on TV) and included in newspaper and magazine stories about the events.

Although he sees no ''overt'' attempts to target youths, ''sports events offer one of the marketing avenues open to (cigarette companies) to get at the audience they want,'' says Jeffrey Weingarten, a tobacco industry analyst at Goldman Sachs in New York.

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Two years ago, medical groups in Britain estimated that cigarette-sponsored sports events in that country were given 190 hours of coverage on television in a single six-month period. The physicians group called for a ban on tobacco sponsorship of sports events.

The US industry's voluntary code also calls for no ads that picture ''any person participating in, or obviously having just participated in, physical activity requiring stamina or athletic conditioning. . . .'' Judging by this guideline, says Judy Murphy at the US Health and Human Services Administration's Office on Smoking and Health, a recent magazine ad depicting a man smoking in a locker room, apparently after some type of exercise, represents ''a new tactic'' by cigarette companies.

The involvement of the tobacco industry in sports events and the use of athletic or active outdoor themes in its advertising is ''worse than it's ever been before,'' according to John F. Banzhaf III, executive director of the antismoking group Action on Smoking and Health in Washington, D.C. ASH has proposed to the Federal Trade Commission that tobacco firms be permitted only so-called ''tombstone advertising'' that would allow text without pictures, colors, or logos. Modified plans have permitted the use of color and pictures, but only of the product itself. The FTC has refused to act on any of these proposals, Mr. Banzhaf says.

As cigarettes break ''the critical mark of $1 a pack,'' he says, the companies are ''going to pull out all the stops on marketing.'' Under the loose regulatory hand of the Reagan administration, he says, ''they see other industries getting away with things,'' and it has encouraged them to become more aggressive. Because ASH and other antismoking groups are finding a deaf ear at the federal level, he says, they will be filing complaints on specific ads in the ''little FTCs'' set up by state governments around the country.

Despite continuing concern over tobacco advertising, Banzhaf says, lawsuits, public education, and ''lately state and local laws'' have become the key to cutting use of tobacco. ''Today we and many other organizations are somewhat less concerned about (cigarette) ads because the nonsmokers' rights campaign is so effective,'' he says.

''Nonsmokers' rights attacks the sexy image of smoking,'' he explains, pointing to a recent ad campaign against teen-age smoking that shows teens ''turning up their noses'' at ''the drag-on lady'' who's trying to look sophisticated by puffing on a cigarette.

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