You Can't Smoke Just One: Exploring the Impact of Tobacco and Tobacco Advertising

My first memory of smoking is when I was hanging out with my much older brother and his friends, who found a pack of cigarettes and decided to give the forbidden sticks of mystery a try. To make sure I wouldn’t “tattle,” my brother backed me up against a wall and made me take a puff or two, thus, in his eyes, making me as “guilty” as the rest of them. I was about 8. (I wouldn’t have told anyway, Bob. But thanks for the early exposure to lung cancer.) Maybe I should thank my brother; I've never "smoked" since.

Back then, smoking wasn’t considered a big deal. Celebs did it. Parents did it in front of their kids. Respectable business owners and church-goers did it. Now that the jury has finally returned from that abominably long coffee break and rendered a “guilty” verdict to the link between smoking and health hazards, you’d think that people would catch on and refuse even one more puff. Some people have. And some of those who haven’t are at least more aware of issues like secondhand smoke. But, according to the World Health Organization (WHO):
  • There are more than 1 billion smokers in the world.
  • Almost half of the world’s children breathe air polluted by tobacco smoke.
  • Tobacco kills about 1 person every 6 seconds.
  • Most people start smoking before the age of 18; a quarter of those start before the age of 10.
And where is most of this happening? In developing countries. Tobacco use is finally decreasing in “high-income” countries, like the U.S. But, globally, use is increasing. WHO says that “more than 80% of the world’s smokers live in low- and middle-income countries.” Why is smoking increasing when information about the negative effects of tobacco use is more widely available (and known) than ever? Say it with me: advertising.

On May 31, the World Health Organization is sponsoring World No Tobacco Day. Cities all around the world are participating, bringing awareness to issues about tobacco and smoking. This year’s theme is “Tobacco-Free Youth,” and the focus is on “a total ban on advertising, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco products.”

The American Lung Association is also running a contest to “expose big tobacco” by asking young people to find tobacco displays and ads in their neighborhoods, take photos of them, and share them on ALA’s “Healthy Lungs” Facebook application.

The smoking gun of tobacco use provides a great platform for exploring the influence of media and advertising on youth. For example, there are numerous websites that offer tobacco ads and spoofs of ads. Just search for “tobacco ads” or “tobacco advertising.” Two examples: Tobacco Free Kids has a gallery of tobacco ads from around the world, including from magazines, billboards, displays, etc. Ads can be searched by country, company, brand or ad type. If you want to compare those to earlier ads, Truth in Advertising has a collection of cigarette ads from the 1940s and 50s.

By exploring and thinking critically about such ads, young people can unravel the messages, tactics and strategies used to encourage people to adopt a lifelong, potentially-fatal habit.

In addition to thinking critically about the ads they’re exposed to, young people can explore how tobacco companies and their public relations divisions work. For example:
  • How much do tobacco companies spend on advertising/marketing each year. How has that changed over the years?
  • What countries do they target most heavily?
  • What age groups?
  • What means do they use to attract youth to smoking?
  • Who would a company whose product can cause death and disease for its consumers look to to find new customers?
  • Why is a company that markets products known to be harmful (even fatal) so successful at recruiting more customers?
And, tobacco use isn't just a health and human rights issue. In addition to all the animals in laboratories who are still subjected to testing to prove/disprove the benefits/harmfulness of tobacco, and in addition to all the animals in close proximity to humans who are exposed to secondhand smoke, plenty of wildlife inadvertently take up the smoking habit (and sometimes die) by eating butts that they mistake for food (and thus ingest all the toxic chemicals contained therein). And, in addition to being a giant eyesore, butts contain toxins that can wash into our waterways. Then there's the whole fire hazard thing.

World No Tobacco Day provides a great chance to help young people adopt a healthy habit: thinking critically and creatively.

~ Marsha, Web Content/Community Manager

Photo courtesy of said&done.
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