RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
As Congress debates tougher tobacco regulation, one product is attracting attention and concern. It's R.J. Reynolds' newest cigarette called Camel No. 9. And if that sounds a bit like the name of a perfume, it's because Camel No. 9 targets women. It comes in a pink pack. It's being advertised in magazines like Glamour and Vogue. And R.J. Reynolds is staging events where women can try it.
NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.
ADAM HOCHBERG: 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.
Unidentified Man #1: Camel No. 9 in the building tonight at (unintelligible)
HOCHBERG: As the disc jockey riled up the crowd, hundreds of invited guests partied at the Amphitheater, a trendy Tampa bar, in what R.J. Reynolds promoted as something of a girl's night out.
In a salon chair overlooking the dance floor, women took turns being pampered by a cosmetologist.
Unidentified Woman #1: I had just blow-dried my hair and styling it.
HOCHBERG: They were given free makeup kits.
Unidentified Woman #2: You get lip-gloss and then a little compact. It's a cute little gift bag.
HOCHBERG: And they got a chance to try Camel No. 9, R.J. Reynolds' unabashedly feminine cigarette. Twenty-six-year-old Angela Rewis, who describes herself as a stay-at-home mom, took one of the distinctive pink and black packs from a display of free samples. And she declared Camel No. 9 the best cigarette she's tasted since she started smoking at age 13.
Ms. ANGELA REWIS (Mother): I like them. They're a sweeter taste, and they don't stink like regular cigarettes. They taste a little bit sweeter, has a clove smell, and I like the pack. It's more for females, instead of carrying around a nasty, ugly pack.
HOCHBERG: Camel No. 9 is by no means the first cigarette targeted at women. Brands like Virginia Slims have been available for decades. But No. 9 is generating a lot of buzz because of its aggressive marketing, which R.J. Reynolds' spokesman Craig Fishel says includes not only parties like this one around the country, but also ads in women's magazines.
Mr. CRAIG FISHEL (Spokesman, Camel No.9): Camel has traditionally been looked at as a male brand, and that's reflective of our adult smokers. Only about 30 percent of Camel's adult smokers are female. So we saw a great business opportunity there to be able to communicate with female adult smokers of competitive brands that this is a product that they might enjoy.
HOCHBERG: Fishel says sales have been strong since 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 power to regulate cigarettes.
At a Senate hearing, Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown read from a Camel No. 9 ad that was mailed to smokers' homes.
Senator SHERROD BROWN (Democrat, Ohio): Camel No. 9 - Introducing our smoothest smoke sensation. Light and luscious, are you ready to flaunt it? It strains the imagination to think that this campaign is aimed at anybody other than 15, 16, 17-year-old girls - something that's pretty morally repugnant.
HOCHBERG: R.J. Reynolds denies its ads target teenagers with its ads. The company says it markets only to adult smokers. But even that concerns some tobacco-industry critics.
Greg Connelly of the Harvard School of Public Health takes issue with R.J. Reynolds courting women, especially the young women who'd be likely to read fashion magazines or go to a loud party at a bar.
Mr. GREG CONNELY (Harvard School of Public Health): The highest smoking rates in our country now are among young adults 18-25. However, only half of that group smokes daily. Most are occasional smokers. And so we're in a fight with the industry to get that, you know, occasional not to go on to become a regular smoker. R.J. Reynolds is out there taking the barroom and turning it into a nicotine classroom to get full-time smokers for the future.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) I'm seeing a little smoke in the room.
HOCHBERG: Back at the bar in Tampa, some smokers we talked with 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. Terry Turner, a 29-year-old insurance adjuster, was smoking Camel No. 9 menthols and was less interested in their health effects than in their taste and the stylized look of the pink, black and teal pack.
Ms. TERRY TURNER (Insurance Adjuster): They're very light, but yet feminine. It's very packaged, like, you wouldn't mind showing it to everyone.
HOCHBERG: How long have you been smoking?
Ms. TURNER: Off and on, for about 10 years.
HOCHBERG: Have you thought about quitting at all?
Ms. TURNER: I enjoy a good cigarette when I'm drinking and hanging out. It's a good relaxation.
HOCHBERG: R.J. Reynolds has been fighting the proposed marketing restrictions in Congress, which it fears would end bar parties and make it impossible to introduce new brands.
Meanwhile, as support for the legislation grows in Washington, Reynolds has stepped up its promotional efforts while it still can. By the end of this month alone, it plans 14 more parties for Camel No. 9.
Adam Hochberg, NPR News.