The Death of Joe Camel: Denormalising tobacco tactics

In 1998, the United States government made it illegal for any tobacco company to depict cartoon characters smoking tobacco products under provisions of the Master Settlement Agreement.

The Master Settlement Agreement awarded the US Government $248 billion and held the tobacco industry responsible for extensive damage to the health of the American public. Canada is still in discussions as to how to proceed with their own Master Settlement Agreement and the amount being suggested for compensation to the Canadian public is $100 billion.

Social science research by the 1990s had discovered that the imagery of cartoon characters smoking was attracting children to tobacco products, with the result being an increase in the number of kids going on to use tobacco products in their teen years. 

Further research had also been done on very young children had discovered Joe Camel, the cartoon character created to sell Camel cigarettes, was as recognizable to young children as Disney’s Mickey Mouse. The characters of the popular children’s cartoon TV show, The Flintstones, Fred & Wilma Flintstone and Barney Rubble, were featured in many cigarette ads shown on TV. The public became galvanized against the deplorable tactics of Big Tobacco, and action was demanded. 

Between November, 1962 and January, 1964, more than 7,000 scientific articles where scrutinized and, by January, 1964, US Surgeon General Luther L. Terry issued his report: Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General, which held cigarette smoking responsible for a 70% increase in the mortality rate of smokers over non-smokers.

Despite increasing scientific evidence against smoking, cigarette consumption in the U.S. continued to rise, and did not fall below pre-1950 levels until the early eighties. Cigarette smoking was endorsed by everyone from TV and movie stars, to sports stars, to cartoon characters, to doctors. Even Santa Claus appeared in numerous ads with a cigarette, endorsing various brands, including Lucky Strikes and Pall Malls.

Joe Camel was introduced in 1987, over twenty years after the Surgeon General had made his public statements. In five years, the annual sales of Camel cigarettes to teenagers rose from $6 million to $470 million.

In 1988, the US Surgeon General’s Report concluded that nicotine was as addictive as heroin and cocaine. 

How Joe Camel ever saw the light of day, let alone become front and centre in full neon in New York’s Time Square in the 1980s is truly stupefying, given the warnings associated with the use of tobacco products that were widely publicized from the mid-1960s onward.

One of the most fascinating stop-tobacco campaigns is currently underway in Canada and the USA, and elsewhere around the world. The smoke-free movies campaign seeks to have all tobacco imagery taken out of films that children see. 

A US class action law suit was recently filed that, if successful, would see a segment of the Hollywood establishment held financially responsible for tobacco-caused health problems experienced by youth.

Films are a primary cause for adolescents’ starting to smoke and progressing to regular, addicted smokers. The World Health Organization has made specific recommendations that all parties to the global Framework Convention on Tobacco Control combat promotion of tobacco in motion pictures. In Canada, about 300,000 high-school-aged children smoke on a daily or occasional basis. Of these, from one‐third to one‐half became smokers because of their exposure to tobacco on screen, according to the findings of research conducted by Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada. 

Future films with smoking should be automatically given an “18A” rating, except if they include depictions of real people who actually smoked or portray the dire health consequences of tobacco use. 

In 1998, the Master Settlement Agreement barred paid product placement in entertainment media accessible to young people. After this legal settlement, tobacco brand appearances in US films did not decline substantially. Un‐branded tobacco imagery, always much more common, became even more frequent, peaking in 2005. 

Neither the American or Canadian government have addressed the issue, and smoking in movies that children see are under no restrictions at this time.

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