Bar Patrons

Warning: Tobacco companies' advertising money may be addictive in Houston's club scene

The mailing-list signups also exist in the clubs, perhaps preparing for a time in which tobacco advertisers will have to rely on direct mail to registered smokers to spread their message.

Does the advertising work? Well, even Baez has to admit, "I used to smoke Marlboro Lights when I first worked here; I smoke Camel Lights now."

Sandy Balboa, a bartender there, is still holding out with Marlboros despite all the pressure.

"They jumped my ass, because in the contract it says you will not have any other brand behind the counter. Well, I'm making it sound like an attack, and it wasn't, but the rep did say, 'Please, I've told you before.' "

Balboa has watched KBA reps switch packs at Instant Karma, and at Cecil's, where she was also a bartender.

"They turn in the packs that they take for Brownie points. Somebody comes up to you and says, 'Do you smoke? Well, here, why don't you try this pack?' It's a big difference between seeing an advertisement to having a rep right in front of you."

One business owner who put a foot down over the issue was Bill Sadler of the Blue Agave (formerly the Moose Cafe). Despite the goodwill toward tobacco generated by the freebies among his smoking employees and customers, the whole thing turned him off a bit.

"I didn't mind providing cigarettes to people who wanted them, but this program was kinda reaching out aggressively."

Still, Sadler experienced nothing but graciousness from the KBA reps, even when he was calling to tell them he wanted out of the contract.

Eric Solberg, of Houston's Doctors Ought to Care (DOC), sees reasons other than pure advertisement for the monetary connection between tobacco companies and clubs.

"This comes at a time when some of the largest cities, like New York and L.A., passed smoking ordinances that restrict or prohibit smoking in bars. So it's not an accident. It was planned to push promotional dollars into the bar scenes. It helps them defeat proposed ordinances, because they get the bars on their side. And secondly, they get terrific audiences for their products."

DOC has been fighting tobacco for 21 years, but even Solberg has to admit he is impressed by the marketing strategies of firms such as KBA that market cigarettes.

"These are the most creative marketing geniuses on the planet. To study the history of cigarette advertising and to monitor it is like getting a Ph.D. in advertising."

California passed a law against giving away free cigarettes, so instead, the tobacco companies gave away free coupons for cigarettes. Laws have restricted where and how tobacco can be advertised, so tobacco companies give away T-shirts and hats, creating walking billboards out of the lucky winners, who might walk into any hospital, Chuck E. Cheese or playground and spread the word.

Solberg's partner, Dr. Alan Blum, has spent 32 years monitoring tobacco and protesting and speaking about it. He sees the advertising as exactly what the public wants.

"The industry has succeeded beyond anyone's expectations in re-creating the glamour and allure of the cigarette. And they've done it in an open way. They've acceded to every demand not to go after kids. They're saying, 'Fine, we're going to be more sophisticated.' They've done what everyone is demanding."

Blum, however, is becoming suspicious of his own side of the struggle. He finds problems with the anti-tobacco movement that go beyond ineffectiveness. "The anti-smoking industry has become as corrupt as the tobacco industry because it's not about fighting smoking anymore, it's about getting tobacco industry money."

What he is referring to is the strange outcome of Texas's recently negotiated tobacco settlement. Anti-smoking groups are now able to line up to get some of the money that tobacco companies have pledged to pay. Furthermore, points out Blum, state Attorney General Dan Morales has effectively "made the state and anti-smoking programs dependent on future profits of the tobacco industry. If the tobacco companies were to go out of business, they couldn't get this money. There's an irony there; it borders on hypocrisy."

Although all the nightclub employees are used to seeing reps from KBA Marketing drinking in their clubs several times a week, and are quite friendly with them, the reps aren't willing to give out interviews.

When one rep at Catbirds was told the Press was having a hard time getting anyone from KBA to interview, he smiled and said: "Well, basically, that's the way it's gonna be," before quickly heading out the door.

RJ Reynolds spokeswoman Carole Crosslan was willing to answer some questions about the program. She says the Camel bar program has been going since 1994 and now operates in 26 cities. She sees the program as a success at reaching smokers over the age of 21. When asked if this was a shift from earlier marketing efforts to teenagers -- something revealed during the tobacco lawsuits -- she responded: "There has never been a marketing program to communicate with underage smokers."

Crosslan sent a piece of e-mail to reiterate this point and also to make the comment that "Leveraging our partnerships with bar owners to fight smoking bans is not the goal of or reason for the Camel Club program. In one instance, we did communicate with Houston bar owners for two reasons: to make them aware of potential smoking-ban legislation and to encourage them to voice their opinion if they were interested in doing so."

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