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Small advertisers light up on the Web

Small-time tobacco companies are turning to the Web to pump up sales, but big-time operators may be too intimidated by anti-smoking fervor.

    Should the Web be declared a smoke-free zone? The number of small retail vendors of cigarettes and foreign makers of tobacco products setting up Web sites or advertising on the Net is on the rise, but legal hurdles and negative public perception might keep the big players offline.

    The Big Chief Smokeshop, a drive-through store in southwest Oklahoma, is one of the small vendors risking public criticism to advertise its products on the Web, and the company says the site is really paying off.

    But big companies like Phillip Morris and RJ Reynolds have so far stayed clear, probably because of fear that anti-smokers will try to ban tobacco advertising on the Web in the same way that is banned on TV, according to Reuters news service.

    Of course, cigarette companies advertise in magazines, many of which also run parallel online zines. But the Web would open up the possibility of kids downloading movies of famous Hollywood stars who "light up" the screen or listening to an audio file of their favorite smokers taking a drag on the newest brand of smokes.

    Reuters quotes one analyst as saying that there is a strong legal argument for allowing tobacco companies to advertise but that the political timing isn't quite right.

    The big tobacco makers are already embroiled, for example, in fighting with the Clinton administration over the effect of their print and billboard ads on minors and may not want to get into a fight on another front. RJ Reynolds wouldn't advertise on the Web because there is no way to control children's access to the Internet, a company spokesperson told Reuters.

    However, others point out that several major breweries, including Budweiser, are online--leading some to argue that there is no significant barrier to online ads hawking Marlboros or any other brand of cigarettes.