Joe Camel Revisionism

Joe Camel Revisionism

January 31, 1999

When it comes to creating the written account of a war, it’s the winners who write the history books. Years or decades later, new views, often by the war’s "losers," make their way into print. That’s called revisionism.

But when the battle is political rather than military, and the winners change their story within days of their victory, it’s neither history nor revisionism. Rather, it’s pretty good evidence of a snow job.

In the tobacco wars, this has happened twice: once in July 1997, shortly after the first proposed settlement between the tobacco industry and the states, and then again this past November, right after final nationwide settlement. In each case, the snow job involved that dominant target of the anti-smoking armada, Joe. This cartoon character, they claimed, with his hip aura and his bevy of babes, was a clear come-on for America’s youth. Nothing, they argued, better demonstrated the concealed intent of the industry to hook our children.

It’s interesting that, despite the millions of industry documents recently unearthed, not a single criminal indictment has been brought by any government agency charging anyone in the industry with attempting to market cigarettes to minors. Nonetheless, Joe Camel’s cartoon nature clearly made him the target of choice. Cartoons and kids – the connection couldn’t be clearer.

But when RJR announced Joe Camel’s retirement in July 1997, the head of the National Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids informed us that "Joe Camel has always been a poor second to the Marlboro Man in attracting kids."

Why, then, had the anti-tobacco crowd focused their previous attacks on Joe Camel? The likeliest reason is that any attack on the Marlboro Man and other non-cartoon ad campaigns would be too clearly seen as an attack on all advertising, and the odds of its success would be far lower.

Much to our delight, the 1997 deal collapsed. The battle, however, continued. Last July, after Minnesota settled its case against the industry, State Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III kicked off a "Tobacco Billboard Blow Out" campaign. He declared that the tobacco industry had "hooked our children" through its use of "slick billboards with cartoon characters." He called on school kids to help choose which cigarette billboards should be demolished first under the settlement. Critics might have argued with the adequacy of Mr. Humphrey’s reasons for thinking that this would do any good, but surely he had at least a bit of evidence to back up his reasoning.

Then, in November, came the new nationwide settlement between the industry and the states, with its ban on Joe Camel and other cartoon figures. On the day after its signing, in a November 24th New York Times op-ed, Mr. Humphrey revealed that he had never had any evidence at all for the alleged connection between advertising and underage smoking. He declared that, "judging from the experience of those countries where all advertising is banned but teenagers still light up in droves, limits on advertising may not make much difference."

In short, no smoke, no gun – just a politician setting the groundwork for even more stringent government interventions in the future. It’s a pity that the settlement’s ban on cartoon figures doesn’t extend to Hubert Humphrey.

One of the central tenets of First Amendment law is that a government restriction on speech, even if otherwise constitutional, must significantly advance its alleged objective in order to be valid. We don’t know how many tobacco billboards are still standing in Minnesota, but Mr. Humphrey’s morning-after comment suggests his campaign had as little basis in law as it did in facts. More importantly, it seems that not only was the anti-Joe Camel drive a red herring, but so was the entire anti-tobacco advertising drive as well.

Regardless of the nonsense that the tobacco industry has issued in the past on the risks of smoking, polls demonstrate that people well understand the size of those risks. We understand far less the risks of the anti-smoking campaign – risks that are only now becoming evident with the adoption of that campaign’s tactics into the current wave of government suits against gunmakers and other disfavored industries.

The anti-tobacco campaign took its modern form with FDA’s pronouncement that smoking is a pediatric disease. But when it comes to child welfare, the pattern seems clear – our kids will be far more threatened by a gutted First Amendment than they ever were by Joe Camel.

Sam Kazman ( is general counsel at CEI.