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R.J. Reynolds letter prompts stations to pull controversial ad

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  1. Libel and Privacy
R.J. Reynolds letter prompts stations to pull controversial ad10/18/94 CALIFORNIA -- Three television stations pulled an anti-smoking ad after the…

CALIFORNIA — Three television stations pulled an anti-smoking ad after the chairman of R.J. Reynolds threatened a libel suit in mid- October, the Associated Press reported.

The ad contains news footage of James W. Johnston, Chief Executive Officer of R.J. Reynolds, swearing before Congress that “cigarettes and nicotine clearly do not meet the classic definitions of addiction.” Three other tobacco executives also are shown testifying they believe nicotine is not addictive.

In the soundtrack of the ad, the questioner’s reminder that they are “under oath” is echoed repeatedly as they are shown testifying. In an October 6 letter to Kim Belshe, director of California’s Department of Health Services and the creator of the ad, Johnston’s attorneys claim “the addition of these words creates the perception that Mr. Johnston committed perjury,” according to AP. The letter cites an article in which an ad agency executive said the words “under oath” were added to the ad’s soundtrack to “emphasize that these [tobacco officials] were lying.”

Peggy Carter, a spokesperson for R.J. Reynolds, denied that the company has threatened any television station with a libel suit.

“Mr. Johnston’s attorneys sent a letter to nine television stations running the ad to ask if they would pull it until the matter is resolved” with the Department of Health Services, according to Carter.

Belshe responded to the letter, saying she did not consider the ad libelous. The intent of the ad, Belshe told AP, was “not to libel an individual, but to speak to the credibility of the industry,” and that R.J. Reynolds was using threats of lawsuits to “coerce” television stations into dropping the ads.

Carter calls the coercion statement “an absurd accusation.” “I’ve worked in media. No television station is going to be strong- armed into doing something, certainly not by a tobacco company,” said Carter.

The stations that pulled the ad — KABC in Los Angeles, KTVU in Oakland, and KBHK in San Francisco — could not be reached for comment.

Regarding the veracity of Johnston’s remarks on nicotine, Carter said “you must look at the tape of his testimony in toto. There is a factual basis for his statement. Congress asked his opinion, and he gave his opinion.”

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