Opening arguments will today (Monday) be presented to a California judge in the case against R J Reynolds brought by the state’s attorney general, following allegations that the tobacco giant targeted children in its ads.

The suit was filed last August by California attorney general Bill Lockyer, who claims Reynolds “continuously and systematically targeted youth” with ads in such magazines as Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated.

Such tactics, Lockyer argues, contravened the 1998 master settlement agreement between tobacco firms and 46 US states. The court has been asked to slap “monetary sanctions” on Reynolds and force the company to change its ad strategy.

Reynolds denies breaking the agreement, saying it only runs ads in magazines whose content is adult-oriented and whose youth readership is less than 25% of the total.

However, the other three big US tobacco firms – Brown & Williamson, Lorillard and Philip Morris – have adopted even stricter guidelines, a strategy Reynolds claims it cannot follow without losing ground to market leader Philip Morris.

The master settlement agreement does not lay down any specific guidelines for magazine ads. At issue is a commitment by the tobacco firms not to take “any action, directly or indirectly, to target youth.”

The California case argues that Reynolds’ advertising for its Camel, Winston and Doral brands in 1999 and 2000 was seen by about as many teenagers as the intended young-adult audience. This, says the brief filed with the court, amounts to a failure to take “meaningful steps to avoid reaching significant numbers of teens”, and hence indirectly targeting them.

Reynolds, however, claims to have semantics on its side. California, it argues, is misusing the word ‘target’, a term which would apply only if teens were the intended audience for the ads, something the state does not intend to prove.

The defendant argues that California is trying to “renegotiate the [master settlement agreement] through the courts”, by “trying to convert Reynolds’ agreement not to target youth into an obligation to shield youth from cigarette advertising in magazines that is targeted to adults.”

The case, to be held before California’s Superior Court in San Diego and anticipated to last a month, is expected to hinge on judge Ronald S Prager’s interpretation of what targeting youth actually means.

Data sourced from: The Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff