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In a surprisingly little noticed move, the US National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) last year successfully requested that four major tobacco companies cease placing advertisements in the school editions of several news magazines. Magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and US News and World Report publish special editions for use in school classrooms, and these editions can be modified from those published for general distribution. Newsweek alone distributes over 300 000 copies to schools for use in school libraries and social studies classes.
The issue was brought to the attention of Vermont attorney general William Sorrell, who chairs NAAG’s Tobacco Committee, by a group of eighth graders (aged 13–14 years) from Plainfield, Vermont, who found that 120 ads for tobacco products were placed in the magazines between January 2002 and June 2003. Phillip Morris, Brown & Williamson, US Tobacco, and RJ Reynolds agreed to remove the ads in response to a request from NAAG, which is responsible for enforcing the 1998 national tobacco settlement.
A spokesman for RJ Reynolds claimed that the company was unaware that the ads were appearing in school editions of the magazines. However, as the attorneys general noted, magazine publishers commonly use a process called “selective binding” to place certain advertisements in some copies of their publications and not others. Tobacco companies have undoubtedly made use of this technique for targeted marketing purposes, as have numerous other advertisers.
Given the tobacco companies’ past history of marketing to children, and their reputation for tightly orchestrated, highly controlled marketing efforts, this assertion of blithe unawareness of a basic ad targeting strategy strains credulity. In addition, the incident demonstrates an appalling lack of awareness on the part of major news magazines about the most basic and best publicised provisions of the Master Settlement Agreement—no marketing to children whatsoever, and specifically no tobacco advertisements in publications targeted at young people. Was this an oversight on a massive scale or another brick knocked out of the tobacco cartel’s youth marketing stonewall? We may never know; but it shows the importance of independent groups and individuals closely monitoring all aspects of any and every tobacco control regulation.