Adam Hochberg, NPR
Smoker Valerie Bliss picks up a free sample pack of Camel No. 9 cigarettes. Bliss was among hundreds of smokers invited to a launch party in Tampa, Fla., for R.J. Reynolds' newest cigarette brand.
Adam Hochberg, NPR
When R.J. Reynolds held a party in Florida last weekend to introduce its newest cigarette, the music was loud, the dance floor was crowded, and — if you believe the company's ads — the smoke that hung in the air was "light and luscious."
R.J. Reynolds invited hundreds of smokers to the Amphitheater — a popular Tampa night spot — to promote Camel No. 9, the company's unabashedly feminine cigarette. Alongside the raucous dance floor, smokers picked up free samples of the product, which comes in distinctive pink and black packs.
"I like them. They're a sweeter taste, and they don't stink like regular cigarettes," said Angela Rewis, 26, who described herself as a stay-at-home mom. "And I like the pack. It's more for females, instead of carrying around a nasty, ugly pack."
Camel No. 9 is by no means the first cigarette targeted at women. R.J. Reynolds sells other women-oriented brands, such as Capri and Misty. And the Virginia Slims brand — manufactured by industry leader Philip Morris — has been available for decades.
But Camel No. 9 is attracting a lot of buzz among smokers because of its aggressive marketing. R.J. Reynolds is holding elaborate launch parties in bars and clubs around the country. Many of them, including the Tampa event, are promoted as something of a girls' night out, where women can sample cigarettes, get massages, have their hair styled and take home gift bags that include makeup and jewelry.
R.J. Reynolds also is promoting Camel No. 9 with an advertising campaign in women's magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Glamour and Vogue. The ads refer to the product as "light and luscious."
"Camel has traditionally been looked at as a male brand," said R.J. Reynolds spokesman Craig Fishel; he notes that only about 30 percent of Camel smokers are women. "So we saw a great business opportunity there to be able to communicate with adult, female smokers of competitive brands that this is a product they might enjoy."
Fishel says sales have been strong since Camel No. 9 debuted in February. But while that's encouraging news for R.J. Reynolds, it alarms some health advocates and government leaders. The product hit store shelves just as Congress began debating legislation to sharply restrict tobacco marketing and give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate cigarettes.
At a Senate hearing last month, Ohio Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown held up a Camel No. 9 ad that was mailed to smokers' homes.
"It strains the imagination to think this campaign is aimed at anybody other than 15, 16, 17-year-old girls — something that's pretty morally repugnant," Brown said.
R.J. Reynolds denies its ads target teenagers. The company says it markets only to adult smokers. At Tampa's Amphitheater, customers were required to present proof of age before they were admitted, and again before they received their sample cigarettes.
Still, some tobacco-industry critics remain concerned. Greg Connelly of the Harvard School of Public Health takes issue with R.J. Reynolds courting female smokers — especially the young adults who would be likely to read fashion magazines or go to a loud party at a bar.
"Only half that group smokes daily. Most are occasional smokers," Connelly said. "R.J. Reynolds is out there taking the bar room and turning it into a nicotine classroom to get full-time smokers for the future."
At the Tampa bar party, some smokers admitted they worry about the dangers of cigarettes. But as the night got later, and they continued to smoke and dance and drink, those health concerns tended to fall by the wayside.
"I enjoy a good cigarette when I'm drinking and hanging out," said Terry Turner, 29, an insurance adjuster who said she planned to make Camel No. 9 menthols her regular brand. "They're very light, but yet feminine. It's very packaged — like you wouldn't mind showing it to everyone."
R.J. Reynolds has been fighting the proposed federal marketing restrictions, which it fears would end bar parties and hamper efforts to introduce new brands. Meanwhile, as support for the legislation grows in Washington, the company is continuing its promotional efforts while it still can. By the end of this month alone, it plans 14 more parties for Camel No. 9.