R J Reynolds Tobacco has been handed a $20 million (€21m; £14m) fine by a California judge for continuing to promote youth smoking despite a commitment not to do so.

The ruling concludes a case brought against Reynolds by the state’s attorney general Bill Lockyer, who argued that the tobacco firm failed to prevent its ads being seen by young audiences [WAMN: 22-Apr-02].

This, argued Lockyer, violated its commitment under the 1998 master settlement between tobacco firms and 46 US states not to “take any action, directly or indirectly, to target youth.” The case is the first time that section of the master settlement agreement, which gives no numerical values for what constitutes targeting, has been tested.

Reynolds argues that the word “target” implies that under-18s are the intended audience of advertising. However, judge Ronald S Prager ruled that the firm’s failure to take “reasonable measures” to assess the reception of its ads and protect under-18s represented a breach of its commitment under the master settlement agreement.

Prager pointed to the number of adverts the tobacco giant bought in magazines with “huge youth readerships” – such as Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated – and ordered Reynolds to ensure its ads were seen by fewer minors.

The case against Reynolds included research from 1999, when it was found that ads for leading brand Camel were seen by 88.5% of teens more than 22 times each, whereas they reached 88% of 21 to 34-year-olds (the target audience) only around 17 times each.

Reynolds, which plans to appeal, argued that the judge’s order to reduce the number of ads seen by minors was unconstitutional. “The only way that you can be sure that a minor is never going to be exposed to cigarette ads is if you don't advertise at all,” it opined. “That basically censors, if not bans, legitimate advertising to adults.”

Data sourced from: New York Times; additional content by WARC staff