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April 9th, 2008 Shefali Kulkarni | News Stories
 

Smoked Out

A PSU student’s internet campaign against Camel cigs goes National.

     
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RUNNING ON FUMES: Two pieces of art created by Jenny Decker for her Cancer No. 9 campaign.

By the time you read this, Jenny Decker expects she’ll be blacklisted from every R.J. Reynolds Tobacco-sponsored party in the nation.

Decker, a 22-year-old Portland State University senior and Portland native, sacrificed a handful of her Friday and Saturday nights over the past year to infiltrate parties and concerts sponsored by R.J. Reynolds around Portland.

Her mission: to gather free trinkets and promotional products from the tobacco company to post on her MySpace page in hopes of exposing how R.J. Reynolds does guerrilla marketing to entice young women to smoke.

And what began as a humble MySpace page has now turned into a nationally recognized campaign that anti-tobacco experts say is accomplishing that goal.

It’s called Cancer No. 9.

Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the nationally known anti-smoking policy group in Washington, D.C., has brought attention to Decker’s work by picking up her campaign and linking it to its own website (tobaccofreekids.org/reports/women/camel9/camel9_marketing.php).

Until now, Decker remained anonymous as the campaign’s creator.

“I’m not against smokers,” Decker tells WW. “I’m just against the company. I don’t think a lot of people know about this type of advertising…there’s no shame anymore.”

Sneaking into tobacco parties and posting photos isn’t new, according to Victoria Almquist, Tobacco-Free Kids’ outreach director. But Almquist says Decker did it with flair.

“We’d been getting photos from other people, but they were taken on cell-phone cameras,” Almquist says. “[Jenny’s] photos were better—there was a level of organization to it. Her concept was just brilliant. We use that example to encourage other people to do this at the grassroots level.”

Decker says she was motivated to begin sneaking into tobacco-sponsored parties and photographing her finds by watching her aunt—a Camel smoker for almost 30 years—develop lung cancer.

“It’s really hard, watching one of your loved ones go through something that traumatic and that close to death,” Decker says. “I’m really doing this in honor of [my aunt].”

In February 2007, R.J. Reynolds—the world’s second-largest tobacco company—introduced Camel No. 9 cigarettes. The femme version of Camel’s original blend appeals to young women smokers, Almquist says, because the cigarettes smell and taste better. She adds that they are the first female-targeted cigarettes since Philip Morris introduced Virginia Slims in 1968.

RJR spokesman David Howard says creating Camel No. 9 was a matter of tapping into an untapped, but existing, market.

“We had a tremendous opportunity for growth for adult women smokers,” he says. “There are 20 million women smokers, and 19 million of them don’t smoke Camel.”

RJR has been reaching into the local entertainment scene for 20 years with parties such as those documented by Decker. But RJR faces a challenge as more cities and states enact smoking bans. In Oregon, for example, smokers have until January 2009 to light up in bars, concert venues and clubs before the statewide smoking ban takes effect.

Not that smoking bans worry Howard.

“Venues have outdoor seating or decks…but just because there is a smoking ban, that doesn’t prohibit us from communicating with smokers,” he says. “It just means they can’t smoke the product. We can still interact with them.”

Howard stresses that RJR-sponsored events are strictly geared for adult smokers—identification is checked at the door and scanned through an age-verification software to make sure party-goers are 21 or older. Camel also asks guests to sign a contract ensuring that they are, indeed, smokers.

But Decker says she never smoked and still got into at least five Camel-sponsored events over the past year—only once was she asked to leave when admitting she was a nonsmoker. Some parties had a “girls’ night out” theme where guests were offered free airbrush tattoos, photos, personalized tank tops, massages, makeovers and cocktails.

“I didn’t have to lie,” Decker says. “When I told a rep that I didn’t smoke, he said, ‘I’ll just take care of you’ and filled in my answers for their survey.”

(Says Howard: “She is not an adult tobacco smoker. She should be removed from our database.”)

Finding the parties was easy. She says she’d usually spot an ad in Willamette Week or the Portland Mercury. Occasionally, her PSU professor, Debbie Kauffman, or her mentor at the Multnomah County Health Department, Kylie Meiner, would tip her off.

She had a system down cold: Try not to bring the same friends to the parties.

“A good quarter into the party, I’d talk to the Camel reps that were there,” she says. She’d ask questions, but not too many, and appear overly eager to go to another Camel party.

By the end of the night, Decker says she would go home with VIP passes for the next Camel event and several goody bags. The next day she was posting photos of her gifts and blogging on MySpace.

Decker filled an 18-gallon Rubbermaid tub with all the swag she got at tobacco parties staged at venerable Portland venues such as the Crystal Ballroom, Barracuda and the Refectory. Among the contents: a pink purse, plastic rings, cell phone accessories and bracelets—items that Almquist and Decker say trickle down from twentysomethings to young girls and teens.

“They can’t legally market to kids,” says Almquist, “but people go home with these goody bags and share them.”

Although publishing her name inevitably ends her espionage days, Decker isn’t sure if she’s ready to retire from Portland’s cigarette subculture. The printmaking art student hopes to use her grassroots campaign as a platform to study public health in a few years.


FACT: Tobacco-Free Kids’ Victoria Almquist says her office monitored blogs supposedly written by teenagers to get their reactions to Camel No. 9. “[Camel No. 9] developed its own lure, really,” Almquist says. “Some blogs wrote that they tasted like chai lattes.”
 
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