Deaths caused by smoking have reached epidemic proportions. In the United States alone, 430,000 people die annually from smoking-related illnesses such as cancers and lung disease. Stephen Jay, chair of the Department of Public Health at Indiana University School of Medicine, states that tobacco’s “human toll far exceeds the Black Death of the 14th century, the global influenza pandemic of 1918–19, and the modern tragedy of HIV-AIDS.”
Health care advocates, concerned about tobacco-related deaths and illnesses, have worked tirelessly to discourage cigarette smoking in the United States through education campaigns that warn the public about the potential health dangers of tobacco use. A particular target for these antismoking messages is teen smokers. According to 2001 data collected by the American Cancer Society, teen smoking rates have gradually decreased since their rapid rise throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s. Despite this encouraging decrease in the number of teen smokers, however, approximately three thousand teens still start smoking each day. One-third of these teens will die prematurely of a smoking-related disease.
One hotly debated issue in the effort to prevent teen smoking is the role that tobacco industry advertisements play in influencing teens’ decisions to begin smoking. Health care professionals view the tobacco industry— often referred to as “Big Tobacco”—as a rich, adversarial force to be reckoned with. In 2002, for example, the United States spent approximately $800 million on various tobacco-control initiatives, including antismoking campaigns aimed at teen smokers. Big Tobacco, however, spent nearly $8 billion on tobacco marketing. Such aggressive tobacco marketing is worrisome to those working to prevent teen smoking, since many tobacco advertisements often reach a youth-oriented audience.
The case of the cool, smoking camel
As evidence of tobacco advertisements’ negative impact on American youths, antismoking groups often point to R.J. Reynolds’s Joe Camel advertising campaign, which debuted in 1988. Joe Camel was a cool, sunglasssporting, leather-jacket-wearing cartoon character featured on billboards and in magazine ads. According to one 1991 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Joe Camel was as easily recognized by six-year-olds as Mickey Mouse. It was not long before this highly recognizable figure began to attract young smokers. By 1995, 13.3 percent of teen smokers smoked Camel cigarettes, a fact that led antismoking groups to accuse R.J. Reynolds of marketing tobacco specifically to minors.
Some commentators reject the claim that such advertising leads to more teen smoking. Social ecologist Mike Males, for example, notes that although the Joe Camel campaign may have influenced teens’ choice of cigarette brand, it did not necessarily increase the number of teen smokers. In fact, Males says in his book Smoked: Why Joe Camel Is Still Smiling, “more [tobacco industry] ad/promo spending is correlated, though not significantly, with slightly lower rates of teen smoking.” And according to one survey by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), teen smoking actually decreased more rapidly in the five years following Joe Camel’s debut than the five years prior. Regardless of these statistics, the harsh criticism R.J. Reynolds received as a result of its Joe Camel campaign led the company to eventually abandon the icon in 1997.
Lawsuits against Big Tobacco
R.J. Reynolds’s discontinuation of the Joe Camel campaign in 1997 did not decrease criticism against the company. As a result of unrelated litigation in the same year, R.J. Reynolds and other tobacco giants were required by the courts to release documents that proved that the industry had made a practice of illegally targeting teen smokers through their ad campaigns. In addition, the tobacco industry was found guilty of suppressing evidence of known health hazards linked to smoking.
In light of these findings, 1997 became an expensive year for the tobacco industry. It settled numerous class-action liability suits that found the industry culpable of knowingly contributing to smoking-related deaths and illnesses. The state of Florida settled its suit with the industry for $11 billion; Minnesota for $6 billion; and Mississippi for $3.4 billion. In yet another class-action suit, sixty thousand flight attendants settled their case with the tobacco industry for $300 million.
By far the most significant tobacco industry settlement, the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) of 1998, held the four largest tobacco companies liable for $206 billion, to be paid over a period of twenty-five years, to compensate forty-six U.S. states for tobacco-related health costs. Big Tobacco also pledged to fund a $1.5 billion, five-year antismoking campaign, to abide by marketing restrictions that prohibit the use of cartoon characters in ads, and to ban large-scale outdoor advertising, in addition to other restrictions.
Some critics of the MSA argue that these restrictions on Big Tobacco are not sufficient to address the problem of teen smoking. While the agreement includes restrictions on youth access to tobacco, for example, it does not include restrictions on point-of-sale advertising or vending machine sales of tobacco products. In The Fight Against Big Tobacco, Mark Wolfson notes that critics of the plan are concerned that the MSA “contains no ‘lookback’ provisions, which would levy financial penalties on tobacco companies if specified reductions in underage tobacco use are not met.”
Tobacco advertising is not the only issue affecting teen smoking
Despite the Master Settlement Agreement and the ensuing ban on advertising tobacco products to youths, many antismoking groups today maintain that Big Tobacco is still continuing to promote smoking to teens and children through the sponsorship of sporting events and concerts; advertisements in magazines that are geared toward eighteen- to twenty-four- year-olds but are often read by younger readers; and product placements in films rated as low as “G” for young viewers. Other antismoking advocates, however, contend that the role of cigarette advertising in influencing teen smokers has been overestimated and that antismoking campaigns should instead focus on other factors that encourage teen smoking, such as peer or parental influences.
These differing viewpoints are reflected in At Issue: Teen Smoking, along with other perspectives from health care advocates, educators, tobacco industry supporters, lawmakers, parents, and teens. In addition to the controversies surrounding tobacco advertising, topics for debate and discussion include the reasons teens smoke and the best ways to help them quit or prevent them from starting.
Did this raise a question for you?