Teen Smoking

Teenagers Keep Tobacco Companies Alive

Almost ninety percent of all smokers started their addictive habit before their 18th birthday. Tobacco companies must hook a smoker before they leave high school or they will likely lose the prospective customer forever.

Illegal tobacco sales to underage American teenagers generate about $240 million per year in state and federal taxes. Maybe that’s why the U.S. Senate voted 52-48 against increasing funding for the cigarette prevention program in 1997. Meanwhile, that same year, they approved $80 million to subsidize the cost of insurance for tobacco growers.

teen smoking

In 2008, the five largest cigarette companies spent $9.94 billion dollars – or more than $27 million dollars per day—advertising and marketing their products. That same year, the five largest smokeless tobacco manufacturers spent $547.9 million dollars on advertising, promotions and discounts.

They claim that they don’t target young people with their marketing tactics. However, marketing consultant and author Al Ries says, “If RJR didn’t target young people, it would be out of business.”

In a memo dated August 2, 1973, RJR’s Claude E. Teague said, “Realistically, if our company is to survive and prosper, over the long term, we must get our share of the youth market. In my opinion, this will require new brands tailored to the youth market. I believe it unrealistic to expect that existing brands identified with an over-thirty “establishment” market can ever become the “in” products with the youth group.” His memo proceeded to analyze the youth market and recommended ways to exploit “pre-smokers.”

In 1984, RJR concluded in a secret report that it needed to pitch its cigarettes to young adults to “replace” other smokers, according to court papers filed in Minnesota’s lawsuit against the tobacco industry. The marketing report cited federal information that showed smokers begin as early as 12 and rarely begin after they turn 25 years old. Based on these facts, the report suggested the company aggressively market cigarettes to younger people.

teen smoking trends

“Younger adult smokers are critical to RJR’s long-term performance and profitability.  Therefore, RJR should make a substantial long-term commitment of manpower and money dedicated to younger adult smoker programs,” the report said. “If younger adults turn away from smoking, the industry must decline, just as a population that does not give birth will eventually dwindle,” said the 77-page report filed by the company as part of the discovery process in Minnesota’s lawsuit.

“It is an extremely damning document,” said Richard Daynard of the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University in Boston. “It’s no accident that the report came from RJR just before the launch of their Joe Camel campaign, which was their first successful foray into the young adult (children’s) market.”

Other tobacco company documents substantiate similar revelations:

  • “Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer.” (Philip Morris)
  • “…the base of our business is the high school student.” (Lorillard Tobacco)
  • “Cherry Skoal is for somebody who likes the taste of candy, if you know what I am saying.” (U.S. Tobacco)

In one poll of adult smokers 30-39 years of age, 89 percent first tried smoking, and 71 percent became daily smokers, before the age of 18. About ninety percent of smokers began before the age of 20. The mean age at first use was 14.6 and the mean age of becoming a daily smoker was 17.7 years old. As a result, tobacco use has been labeled a pediatric onset disease.

About 10 percent of current adult smokers began when they were between nine and 10 years old.

The younger smokers are when they start their habit, the heavier they smoke as adults. Tobacco companies even studied hyperactive third-graders to see if they were more likely than other youth to become smokers. Who knows how many children and population segments tobacco companies have studied for effective financial exploitation.

The tobacco companies are winning, since 25 percent of all high school students smoke. According to one study, about 20 percent of eighth-graders have smoked in the past 30 days. By comparison, one in four 12th-graders and one in five 10th-graders reported using an illicit drug in the past 30 days.

teen smoking statistics

About 80,000 people around the globe start smoking every day—3,000 kids in the U.S. Like all smokers, they quickly proceed to suffer from shortness of breath, coughing, nausea, dizziness and phlegm production. Of the 3,000 American kids who begin smoking every day, 1,000 will die a tobacco-related death. The average age of onset for tobacco addiction is 14 years old.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 80,000 young people around the world begin smoking every day. A combination of factors can influence children and teens when they are tempted to experiment with tobacco. Understanding these dynamics can help everyone make informed decisions. Advertising is considered to be the leading influence behind teen smoking. When you look at the history of tobacco advertising, it appears biased toward young people. For instance, Your Hit Parade, a 1950s radio show, was very popular with children. Lucky Strike cigarettes sponsored the program.

In 1953, Philip Morris exclusively sponsored the new TV program I Love Lucy for $19,000 per episode. Fred Flintstone, Ronald Reagan, Mike Wallace and legions of doctors also were used to promote cigarettes in the 1950s and 1960s. During that period, the Marlboro Man was created by the advertising agency Leo Burnett to revive a brand that formerly targeted women smokers. The new brand proudly featured filters and hinged boxes and soon gained popularity among young people and adults alike. The rest is history—and so are many of its customers.

Joe Camel was another marketing icon. He was the advertising mascot for Camel cigarettes from late 1987 to July 12, 1997, appearing in magazine advertisements, billboards, and other print media. In 1991, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study showing that by age six nearly as many children could correctly respond that “Joe Camel” was associated with cigarettes as could respond that the Disney Channel logo was associated with Mickey Mouse and alleged that the “Joe Camel” campaign was targeting children, despite R. J. Reynolds’ contention that the campaign had been researched only among adults and was directed only at the smokers of other brands. At that time it was also estimated that 32.8% of all cigarettes sold illegally to underage buyers were Camels, up from less than one percent. Subsequently, the American Medical Association asked R. J. Reynolds Nabisco to pull the campaign. R. J. Reynolds refused, and the Joe Camel Campaign continued. In 1991, Janet Mangini, a San Francisco-based attorney, brought a suit against R. J. Reynolds, challenging the company for targeting minors with its Joe Camel advertising campaign. In her complaint, Mangini alleged that teenage smokers accounted for $476 million of Camel cigarette sales in 1992. When the Joe Camel advertisements started in 1988, that figure was only at $6 million, “implicitly suggesting such advertisements have harmed a great many teenagers by luring them into extended use of and addiction to tobacco products.”

R. J. Reynolds has denied Joe Camel was directed at children. The company maintains that Joe Camel’s target audience was 25-49-year-old males and current Marlboro smokers. In response to the criticism, R. J. Reynolds instituted “Let’s Clear the Air on Smoking”, a campaign of full-page magazine advertisements consisting entirely of text, typically set in large type, denying those charges, and declaring that smoking is “an adult custom.”

Internal documents produced to the court in Mangini v. R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, San Francisco Superior Court, demonstrated the industry’s interest in targeting children as future smokers. The importance of the youth market was illustrated in a 1974 presentation by RJR’s Vice-President of Marketing who explained that the “young adult market . . . represent[s] tomorrow’s cigarette business. As this 14-24 age group matures, they will account for a key share of the total cigarette volume—for at least the next 25 years.” A 1974 memo by the R. J. Reynolds Research Department points out that capturing the young adult market is vital because “virtually all [smokers] start by the age of 25 and most smokers begin smoking regularly and select a usual brand at or before the age of 18.”

In July 1997, under pressure from the impending Mangini trial, Congress and various public-interest groups, RJR announced it would settle out of court and voluntarily end its Joe Camel campaign.

Despite bans on television, outdoor and other placements, tobacco companies still spend billions each year on advertising, promotions and discounts. Tobacco companies spend a total of about $10.7 billion per year on all U.S. marketing and promotions.

Increasingly, tobacco companies are using promotional activities that reach youth—such as sporting and music events. They also are utilizing themes that appeal to young people— independence, adventure and attractiveness. Plus, motion pictures have become advertising vehicles since they often feature actors who smoke. For example, in 1989 Philip Morris paid $350,000 to have its Lark brand featured in the James Bond movie, License to Kill. A study conducted by the American Lung Association found 77 percent of 133 films released in 1994 and 1995 featured characters who either were smoking or holding tobacco products. Fortunately, there has been a steady decline in this trend for the past 20 years.

Of course, advertising is only part of the equation. In the case of young smokers, all sales are illegal, so it’s quite an elaborate scheme influencing the youngsters to try tobacco, which turns them into loyal, but addicted, customers. Parents, siblings and friends often buy cigarettes for under-age smokers. Otherwise, they count on store merchants to make the sale or they steal the cigarettes. Obviously, laws restricting sales to minors have minimal impact, when one-third of teenagers smoke. Plus, it’s only illegal for the transaction to occur. It isn’t always illegal for children to possess cigarettes.

With most teenagers, initiation to cigarette smoking typically happens with friends. Peer pressure plays a role. For example, girls whose friends are smokers are six times more likely to take up the habit. Boys whose friends are smokers are eight times more likely to smoke. The Mayo Clinic says teens are 13 times more likely to smoke if their best friends smoke.

Role models also influence teens. Over time, several high-profile people have been seen in public sucking on a cigarette or cigar. Public smokers have included Babe Ruth, Helen Hayes, Al Jolson, Amelia Earhart, Humphrey Bogart, Arthur Godfrey, John Travolta, Mickey Mantle, Ronald Reagan, Don Adams, Will Smith, Whoopi Goldberg, Bruce Willis, Winona Ryder, Leonardo DiCaprio, Julia Roberts, Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn and many others. On the political scene, President Clinton, Supreme Court Justices William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas and many others are smokers. With leaders like these smoking, children continue getting mixed messages on the topic of teen smoking.

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Crossbow Communications is a full-service advertising agency and public relations firm in Denver, Colorado and Phoenix, Arizona. The PR firm specializes in issue management and public affairs. Contact Gary Chandler for more information gary@crossbow1.com

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