NEW YORK – Not long ago, fax machines and e-mail inboxes at Vogue, the world's premier fashion magazine, were briefly assaulted with thousands of angry letters. Not about the latest gorgeously photographed fashion trends or beauty products in its influential pages, but about a single, colorful ad: for Camel No. 9 cigarettes.
"If you draw income from the advertisement of tobacco," Heidi Thompson of Freeport, Ill., wrote in one letter, "you are as guilty as big tobacco companies in selling the health and future of so many of our youth in order to pad your bank accounts."
The letters were part of a grass roots campaign by an anti-smoking group to get Vogue to drop ads for the new, prettily packaged Camels, which they and others feel are targeted to younger women and teenagers.
But it isn't just Vogue. Pick up nearly any fashion magazine this month -- Glamour, Harper's Bazaar, Lucky -- and you'll see a colorful cigarette ad mixed in with articles on beauty, fitness, nutrition and glowing skin.
You won't find them in a number of other countries. A European Union law, for example, bans tobacco print ads on grounds they glamorize smoking and promote it among young people.
But in the United States, where TV and radio ads were banned long ago and billboards more recently, print ads are the final frontier in tobacco advertising, aside from store displays and the like. And to anti-smoking groups, their presence, though waning, is especially tasteless in fashion magazines and others aimed at young women -- at a time when lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in women.
"Research out there shows that young people are susceptible to advertising," says Ellen Vargyas, counsel for the American Legacy Foundation, established in the wake of the 1998 settlement between the states and the tobacco industry. "I wish the publications themselves would look hard at what they're doing. Readers look to them to see what's cool, and what's trendy -- and they see cigarettes."
Her organization sponsored a major tobacco report issued last week by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences. The report, which called on Congress and the president to give the Food and Drug Administration power to regulate tobacco, also had a recommendation for print ads: that they be restricted to black and white text only -- no images.
That would certainly thwart the impact of the Camel No. 9 campaign, whose ads use shiny paper, sophisticated colors like teal and fuschia, and accents of lace to achieve a sense of feminine chic. Those ads have provoked accusations, including from a group of U.S. senators, that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., maker of Camels, is trying to lure teens and younger women to smoke. (The company says it seeks only to sway established adult smokers.)
But they've also aroused anger at the magazines printing the ads. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says volunteers around the country sent Vogue more than 8,000 protest e-mails or faxes earlier this month. It says it got no response, other than a couple of scribbled notes faxed back on letters that had been addressed to editor Anna Wintour. "Will you stop? You're killing trees!" read one note shown to The AP.
A spokeswoman for Conde Nast Publications, which publishes Vogue, said neither Wintour nor publisher Thomas Florio were available for an interview. "Vogue does carry tobacco advertising. Beyond that we have no further comment," said the spokeswoman, Maurie Perl. She also said no one at Glamour, Lucky or W, also Conde Nast publications, would be available. Editors at Essence magazine, which also carries tobacco ads and is owned by Time Inc., also declined comment.
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, says that while print ads are on the decline, he's still concerned about fashion magazines, and especially the iconic Vogue, because "they have far more impact on teenage girls than almost any other written media. And that's the reason the tobacco industry is in these magazines."
Magazine analyst Samir Husni says it's "oddly hypocritical" for magazines to run articles about health issues, including cancer, and then have tobacco ads nearby. "What they're saying is that they value their ad customers more than their million or two million readers," says Husni, of the University of Mississippi. "Country after country is banning cigarette ads in magazines."
Tobacco companies spent $13.1 billion on promotional spending in 2005, the last year for which there were figures, according to a recent report by the Federal Trade Commission. Most of that went into price discounts for consumers. On magazine ads, they spent $17.2 million in the first quarter of 2007, according to the Magazine Publishers of America.
A number of magazines refuse to accept tobacco ads: just a few are Men's Health, Self, and Money, according to a list provided by the Tobacco-Free Periodicals Project.
But most fashion magazines do. In current June issues, for example, Lucky, Vogue and Glamour have Pall Mall ads in bright orange. Harper's Bazaar advertises American Spirit and Camel No. 9 in an issue that interviews Cate Edwards, daughter of Elizabeth Edwards, about her mother's fight against advanced breast cancer.
One possible contributing factor for the continued presence of tobacco ads in fashion magazines: the stubborn prevalence of smoking in the fashion world, particularly among models.
"All the girls smoke," says Michael Vollbracht, creative director at Bill Blass. "I was doing a fashion show, and all these beautiful young things were smoking outside. They looked at me like I was an old fuddy-duddy."
One prominent player in the fashion industry says it's "jarring" to think that fashion magazines print tobacco ads -- but confesses she flips by them without noticing.
"I'll bet if you told a lot of people there are cigarette ads in fashion magazines, they'd say, 'you're kidding,"' says Nian Fish, creative director and senior vice president at KCD, which produces shows for top fashion houses.
Both she and Vollbracht feel that the fashion industry itself shouldn't have to address alone a much broader social issue.
"We're a capitalist society, aren't we?" Vollbracht said. "We have to take it up with our government. The fashion industry can only do so much."