Big Tobacco is Still Targeting Our Kids

March 23, 2012
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Despite the demise of Joe Camel, Big Tobacco is still targeting our kids.  That is because, to use Philip Morris’ own words, “Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer.”  Or, as a Lorillard Tobacco document stated, “[T]he base of our business is the high school student.”  Or worse yet, per an R. J. Reynolds document, younger customers are “the only source of replacement smokers” for those who quit smoking or die from tobacco-related disease.  (eeeww…replacement smokers??!!)

According to the latest reports on tobacco marketing issues by the Federal Trade Commission (for 2007 and 2008), tobacco companies spend more than $1 million per hour – that’s right, per hour! – to market cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products in the US.  That comes to a total of $10.5 billion a year spent to lure folks into smoking a product that has been associated with so many adverse health effects…effects that we, in turn, have to spend billions and billions of dollars to treat.  Kind of crazy, no?

According to a recently released 2012 Surgeon General report, Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults, the scientific evidence “consistently and coherently points to the intentional marketing of tobacco products to youth as being a cause of young people’s tobacco use.”  On March 21, 2012, the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids (CTFK) released a video (see below) and a report on tobacco use outlining the ways in which Big Tobacco goes about inducing kids to smoke.  They highlight four major trends in tobacco marketing:

  • Heavy marketing and discounting in convenience stores.  This accounts for more than 90% of their total marketing budget.  It is a pretty clever strategy if you want to attract kids to your product as two-thirds of teens visit a convenience store at least once a week.  According to CTFK, studies have shown that exposure to tobacco marketing in stores and price discounts increase youth smoking.
  • Increased marketing of smokeless tobacco.  Since the 1998 legal settlements against tobacco companies, marketing for these products has increased almost 300% to ~$550 million in 2008.   These products are not limited to the traditional chewing tobacco we are familiar with from the movies, but now include chews flavored with cherry, apple and citrus.  These products also take new forms, such as sticks, strips, and orbs that look like mints, breath strips, and toothpicks and are, therefore, easy to conceal and unlikely to be detected by parents, teachers or other adults concerned about the well-being of teens.
  • Proliferation of cheap, sweetflavored “little cigars.”  These little babies come in a

    Tobacco? or Candy?

    variety of sweet flavors, such as peach, apple, grape and cherry, and they have enticing names such as “Swisher Sweets” and “Sugarillos“  Now, wrap them up in colorful packaging and price them cheaply – hmmm, it make you wonder just who is the target market for this product?  Could it be our kids?

  • New versions of cigarette brands most popular with kids.  Marlboro, Newport, and Camel are all popular brands among young smokers.  So it should not come as a surprise that Big Tobacco keeps those brands fresh my adding brand extensions, such as Marlboro Black, Newport Red, and Camel Crush.

Now, we all know that large corporations understand what they are doing when it comes to marketing.  Just as the food industry has cleverly develop advergames to attract kids to their sugary sweet products, Big Tobacco has developed advertising strategies that will attract the folks they want (and need) the most – young smokers, vulnerable to addiction, and with a lifetime (albeit a shortened lifetime) ahead of them to keep on purchasing their products.

Despite decades of anti-tobacco campaigns, 25% of high school seniors are regular cigarette smokers;  another 20% uses smokeless tobacco.  Because they will have trouble quitting once addicted, it is estimated that 80% of teen smokers will smoke into adulthood.  And, per the Surgeon General’s report, half of persistent smokers will die about 13 years earlier than their non-smoking peers.

Among adults who become daily smokers of cigarettes, nearly all (88%) had their first puff by age 18; 99% by age 26.  Evidently, if you get them young, you can keep them.  So it is no wonder marketing efforts target youth.  Although Big Tobacco may deny this is their intention, the Surgeon General’s report notes that “advertising and promotional activities by tobacco companies have been shown to cause the onset and continuation of smoking among adolescents and young adults.”

The report concludes by recommending “coordinated, multicomponent interventions that combine mass media campaigns, price increases including those that result from tax increases, school-based policies and programs, and statewide or community-wide changes in smokefree policies and norms  [because they] are effective in reducing the initiation, prevalence, and intensity of smoking among youth and young adults.”

But, of course, all of this is going to cost money.   In this time of belt-tightening when proposals such as the Ryan plan propose drastic cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, it makes you wonder whether we have completely missed the point of public health.  Why are we spending billions and billions on treating tobacco-caused diseases and more millions on prevention programs, while allowing tobacco companies to spend, legally, a million dollars an hour to promote a product that not only has no redeeming features, it is actually responsible for killing almost a a half million of us every year? It’s a good question, huh?

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