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RJR Slow in Anti-Smoke Campaign

May 7, 1999

NEW YORK (AP) _ R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the maker of Camel and Winston cigarettes, turned over only one billboard for anti-smoking messages when the ban on tobacco advertising on big outdoor signs took effect last month.

Several state officials said they had to prod another major cigarette company, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., the maker of Kool and Lucky Strike, to provide billboards.

Overall, the states got free use of 4,277 billboards from the tobacco companies as of April 23, when the tobacco ad ban took effect, according to the Office on Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The office helped the states get anti-smoking billboard signs.

Philip Morris USA, the maker of Marlboro and the biggest cigarette company, said it turned over about 1,900 billboards. Brown & Williamson gave the states about 1,700 billboards, according to the National Association of Attorneys General, while Lorillard Tobacco Co. and Reynolds supplied the rest.

Public health officials in some states like West Virginia said they felt they were entitled to more billboards than they got.

But other states got more billboards than they had anticipated, said Joel Ressler, a senior deputy attorney general in Pennsylvania who has been in discussions with several states over the billboard issue.

``Ultimately we seem to have wound up where we should have been,″ he said.

The billboard ban resulted from last November’s settlement agreement between the major tobacco companies and 46 states to resolve claims for the costs of treating sick smokers.

The industry agreed to pay the states $206 billion over 25 years and accept marketing restrictions including a halt to cigarette advertising on billboards. The states agreed to drop their suits for tobacco-related health costs.

The billboard provision required that tobacco ads would come down five months after the agreement was signed and allowed the states to use the space where the cigarette ads had been for the rest of the lease.

Reynolds managed to hand over only one billboard _ a sign on a heavily traveled highway along the Hudson River in New York City _ because it switched to shorter-term billboard leases in October even as the tobacco settlement talks were under way.

Under the new contracts, nearly all its billboard leases expired on or before March 31, about three weeks before the billboard ad ban was to take effect.

Carole Crosslin, a spokeswoman for Reynolds, said the company made the move because of ``the uncertain times in the industry″ and said it wasn’t the first time Reynolds had negotiated shorter-term leases.

Joseph Belluck, a former special counsel to the New York state attorney general’s office who worked on the billboard issue, said Reynolds’ representatives told him ``we took a chance and our bet paid off.″

Brown & Williamson canceled its billboard leases after the settlement was signed, according to spokesman Mark Smith. He said that was done to assure its outdoor tobacco ads would be down by the April deadline.

Smith said the company then gave the states a list of their billboards and asked which ones the states wanted. The company reacquired leases where it could, but found some billboards had already been leased to others.

Brown & Williamson then agreed to buy replacement boards in locations that would be seen by as many, if not more, people, Smith said.

Dennis Eckhart, deputy attorney general for the state of California, said Brown & Williamson ``realized they shouldn’t have″ canceled the leases after the settlement was signed.

He said the company initially offered to buy boards near schools for anti-smoking messages instead, but the state insisted on getting boards with visibility comparable to the boards the company had been using for tobacco.

The company and the state eventually agreed on replacement boards.

But Eckhart called it ``a frustrating experience. We had a lot of back and forth to get them to live up to their obligations.″

New York’s Belluck described similar difficult negotiations with Brown & Williamson. ``They hemmed and hawed but we had them dead to rights,″ he said, adding ``we felt we did okay on the deal″ ultimately worked out for replacement boards.

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