A report appearing in the February issue of Pediatrics magazine confirms what those in the advertising business already know — tobacco advertising can be highly influential on young people.
The survey of German public school students showed that 46% of young people who saw the most ads for cigarettes were more likely to try smoking than those who saw no tobacco ads. The study was conducted with children age 10 to 17 years old.
To those in the tobacco business, the new study is cause for anything but celebration.
It is likely to reinforce the continuing crackdown on smoking. Already, smoking is being banned in public places in the U.S. and other European countries. In 2005, the tiny country of Bhutan became the first in the world to institute a national ban on smoking.
Globally, the tobacco industry is under attack. Whether it's regulations against what's shown on cigarette packs, restrictions on types of cigarettes, or outrage over non-cigarette tobacco novelties targeting youth, cigarettes and other tobacco products are increasingly being pushed out of the mainstream, at least from a marketing point of view.
Dr. James Sargent, co-author of the study and a professor of pediatrics and family and community medicine at Dartmouth Medical Center in New Hampshire, says that young people viewing tobacco advertising can "start having favorable thoughts about smoking: 'It might be fun, it might make me more socially accepted.' This preceded any intent to smoke on their part."
While other studies on youth, advertising and smoking have been conducted, this one "supports causality," he adds.
Cheryl Healton, president and CEO of the American Legacy Foundation, commented, "This [study] is very important because there are few, if any, longitudinal studies" that demonstrate a direct link between cigarette ads and smoking in young people. The American Legacy Foundation operates The Truth anti-smoking campaign (one of its latest PSAs, targeting so-called tobacco candy, below), which for years has targeted youth with edgy promotions expounding the dangers of smoking.
Dr. Sargent's study showed the subjects twelve ads with the branding removed. Six of the ads were for cigarettes, but the other six were for such products as candy and cell phones. Subjects were asked to identify the product that was being advertised and, if possible, recall the brand name.
Of the students who had seen tobacco ads, 13% of them began smoking after nine months. The more cigarette ads they saw, the more likely they were to start smoking. Researchers said they controlled the data analytics for other factors that could have skewed the results, such as smoking by parents and peers.
According to Cheryl Healton, tobacco companies spend around $30 million daily advertising their products just in the U.S. She says that even though tobacco advertising is not allowed on American television, smoking is promoted in other ways.
"Sex and the City was the longest-running ad for Marlboro Lights," Healton says. Other shows, such as Mad Men, glamorize smoking. Healton points out that tobacco companies "have to get young people to smoke or else they will go out of business."
This latest study "just adds weight to the idea of having the [government officials] be able to control tobacco marketing," says Dr. Sargent. True — but doesn't it seem like the tobacco companies have an uncanny way of managing to work around government regulation?
With advertising encroaching on school buses and school property, parents are already sensitive about advertising's influence on their kids. And when it comes to tobacco advertising in particular, it's a hot-button issue — one that where there's smoke, there's sure to be fire.