10.13 Industry efforts to discourage smoking

Last updated: August 2017
Suggested citation: Freeman, B and Winstanley, M. 10.13 Industry efforts to discourage smoking. In Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2017. Available from http://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-10-tobacco-industry/10-13-industry-efforts-to-discourage-smoking

For decades, the tobacco industry has publicly stated that it does not wish young people to start smoking. The health establishment has long regarded these claims with scepticism, pointing out that smoking results in the death of two-thirds of its long-term customers2 and that the industry needs to find a steady stream of new recruits if it wishes to stay in business. Despite industry protestations to the contrary, there is ample evidence that its promotional activities in Australia3 and internationally4 have in the past targeted, and continue to target, new usersi (see also Chapter 11). Initiatives adopted by the tobacco industry with the stated intention of reducing the appeal of its products to young people have been designed to forestall government intervention and to give the impression that the industry is cooperative and responsible. In the words of a British American Tobacco official in 1973, describing a voluntary agreement for the industry in Hong Kong to withdraw tobacco advertising during children’s television viewing hours: ‘…this is one of the proposals that we shall initiate to show that we as an industry are doing something about discouraging young people to smoke. This of course is a phony way of showing sincerity as we all well know’.5 ii

As part of the industry’s purported embrace of corporate responsibility, it has developed youth smoking prevention programs worldwide. These have typically taken the form of programs aimed at retailers, advertising aimed at young people and their parents, and sponsorship of ‘life skills’ educational programs.6  These activities have been widely criticised by tobacco control experts for their demonstrated ineffectiveness, as well as the benefits they may bring the tobacco industry, including:6,  7, 8   

 

  • shifting responsibility for prevention from the industry and placing the onus on retailers, parents and social groups
  • fostering partnerships with government and non-government health and education interests, which may give the industry political clout as well as credibility
  • strengthening communications with retailers and shoring up support for future lobbying activities
  • making opponents look like extremists
  • giving the industry an opportunity to communicate directly with young people
  • reinforcing smoking as an ‘adult choice’ (hence enhancing its cachet among teenagers)
  • providing ‘proof’ if required in a legal setting that the industry has taken action to discourage youth smoking.

Despite opposing tax increases and denying the effect that higher prices have on reducing tobacco consumption, British American Tobacco Australia CEO David Crowe appeared to acknowledge the importance of price in youth smoking prevention during a media interview on his opposition to plain packaging reforms. David Crowe stated that a direct consequence of plain packaging will be that, ‘we no doubt will modulate our price down, more people will smoke. We all know, things get cheaper people buy more and more kids will smoke. And that is obviously completely opposite to what the Government intends’.8   

10.13.1 Youth access programs

Access programs address how young people purchase tobacco, and generally focus on the retail environment. In Australia it is illegal in every state and territory to sell tobacco products to anyone aged younger than 18. Laws regarding sales to minors have long been a component of a comprehensive tobacco control program and their role in Australian tobacco control policy remains important as a deterrent to under-age sales.9

There is debate over how effective access laws are in reducing smoking prevalence in young people, since it is well known that younger smokers obtain their cigarettes from a variety of other sources, particularly friends and family.10 Although strictly policed laws might indeed reduce sales to minors, they do not stop young people from getting cigarettes via their social networks.11 It is also clear, however, that regular, long-term enforcement of youth access laws can help prevent underage young people from smoking.12 To maximise effectiveness, a comprehensive retailer enforcement and compliance program is needed, including monitoring, use of underage undercover shoppers, and reporting of violations paired with significant penalties. Training retailers to recognise fake identification may also help improve compliance.13

Investigation of tobacco industry documents in Australia and overseas has shown that the industry has co-opted youth access issues as a low-risk opportunity for gaining important public relations benefits.6, 3, 14 Since the early 1980s, the Australian tobacco industry has actively supported access programs by providing information and signage to tobacco retailers.3 The three Australian companies currently co-sponsor a program called ‘18+—it’s the law’—which provides in-store materials and advice to retailers.iii For the launch of the 2002 version of the program, the tobacco industry advertised in both the trade and mainstream press. In an environment in which communication by the tobacco industry is greatly curtailed, this advertising provided a rare opportunity for the industry to portray itself as a socially responsible corporate citizen.

Sponsoring youth access programs also assists the tobacco industry to build close relationships with tobacco retailers — particularly those in the convenience retail sector. In turn, these same retailers can then serve as a more 'credible' public face for the tobacco industry. For example, in Canada, tobacco companies support a very similar youth access program as the '18+—it's the law' and are also members of several retailer bodies, including the Canadian Convenience Stores Association [CCSA]iv. The CCSA is vocal opponent of effective tobacco control measures, such as plain packaging, and supportive of industry friendly policies, such as making youth possession of tobacco products illegal and punishable by large fines.15

10.13.2 'Life skills' programs

Another component of the industry’s activities in youth smoking prevention is sponsorship of life skills education programs. These programs typically touch on licit and illicit drug use, and include themes such as personal responsibility, self-determination, self-esteem, peer influences and media influences. There is strong evidence that in the US, the tobacco industry has actively supported programs known to be ineffective and that in doing so it has managed to keep at bay the introduction of other, more hard-hitting life skills programs.v 16 Analysis of these programs has found them to be fundamentally deficient from a public health perspective.17 These programs have also provided the tobacco industry with leverage against the introduction of stronger tobacco control measures intended to protect young people.16, 18   

Efforts by the Australian tobacco industry to distribute material in schools failed during the 1980s.19, 20 In the late 1990s Philip Morris funded the development of a program for Australian teachers to help schoolchildren ‘say no’ to smoking, illicit drugs, drinking and bullying. Philip Morris wished to conceal its association with the program, ‘I’ve got the power’, due to fears that if the connection were exposed, the program would meet with hostility.3 Its fears proved well founded and the program has not gained acceptance in Australia.21 However, despite criticism, Philip Morris provided funding for educational materials about substance abuse intended for young Aboriginal people, in collaboration with the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group and the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Incorporated.22

The World Health Organization has recommended against the use of tobacco industry-endorsed youth smoking prevention programs, in recognition that they are intended to serve industry purposes rather than reduce the uptake of smoking.18   

10.13.3 Anti-smoking advertising

In the US and other countries tobacco companies launched extensive television and magazine advertising campaigns with the stated intention of discouraging smoking among young people.6 These programs proliferated in the early 2000s, with Philip Morris taking its offensive to more than 70 countries in 2001.6 In the US, the volume of tobacco-sponsored anti-smoking advertising once equalled or exceeded that of health interests.23, 24

In 1998, Philip Morris commenced the ‘Think. Don’t Smoke’ campaign in the US. This was soon followed by another campaign by US-based company, Lorillard, with the slogan ‘Tobacco is whacko if you’re a teen’.24 The common message of these advertisements was that smoking is an adult choice and that young people don’t need to smoke to fit in socially. The Philip Morris advertisements did not explain exactly why young people should not smoke, and instead repeated the theme that you do not have to smoke to ‘be cool’.24, 25 Philip Morris also produced advertisements aimed at parents (‘Talk. They’ll Listen’). 

Several studies from the US show that industry-funded programs have not been effective24, 25, 26, 27, 28 and may even have fostered a more positive attitude towards the tobacco companies.24, 28 A large study conducted over a four-year period found that tobacco industry campaigns neither reduced smoking nor intention to smoke among the target audience, and that advertisements advising parents to talk to their children about smoking might have influenced teenagers in their senior high school years to smoke.26 The tobacco companies do not support campaigns that could affect profitability or undermine industry operations.6, 16

As of 2017, the tobacco industry is less forthcoming about its support of education initiatives, with Philip Morris International stating only that it provides funding to teachers and community organisations to support educational efforts in areas ‘where we feel such help is needed.’vi

Experimentation with smoking overwhelmingly occurs during the teenage years. Data from the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey shows the average age at which 14–24-year-olds smoked their first full cigarette increased from 14.2 years in 1995 to 16.3 in 2016 (a significant increase from 15.9 years in 2013).3

ii See Knight and Chapman4 for detailed discussion of tobacco industry activities in Hong Kong. This excerpt from minutes of a meeting between representatives of tobacco manufacturers in Hong Kong may be viewed at: https://www.industrydocumentslibrary.ucsf.edu/tobacco/docs/#id=fzjx0111

iv See: http://www.cstores.ca/en/membership/our-members/

v Such as programs that expose industry tactics, deal graphically with health effects and denormalise smoking—see Chapter 5.

vi See: http://www.pmi.com/en_pl/responsibility/how_we_operate/youth_smoking_prevention/pages/youth_smoking_prevention.aspx#

Relevant news and research

For recent news items and research on this topic, click here (Last updated September 2018)   

References

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