Children smoking as young as nine. Cigarette giants advertise to kids.

The major tobacco companies collectively known as Big Tobacco have been involved in some very “shady” practices over the decades, from increasing the addictive nicotine levels in cigarettes, allegedly bribing top doctors to deny smoking’s harmful side effects, and to complete denial that smoking causes cancer. All this to ensure that their lethal products continue to sell.

However, the worst of these allegations must be that Big Tobacco, directly and indirectly, marketed its products to children. Various tobacco companies used magazine spreads and other forms of advertisement that would reach a large audience base among young adults and even children. The most famous of which is the Joe Camel advertising campaign by Camel Cigarettes. The creation of the cartoon camel undeniably enticed young smokers to pick up the deadly habit.

According to a 1991 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, six-year-olds could link “Joe Camel” with cigarettes. Close to the same number of children associated the Disney Channel logo with Mickey Mouse. They accused R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, who manufactures Camel Cigarettes, of intentionally targeting children in their advertising campaigns. Before the advertising campaign fewer than 1% of under 18s smoked Camels, while after the campaign a third of underage smokers preferred Camels of their cigarette of choice.

The background regarding Big Tobaccos’ questionable behaviour could be its own story. However, they have been back to their old tricks. Regulators and politicians were able to restrict the well-oiled tobacco industry propaganda machine until the invention of social media. The rise of Facebook and Instagram created a fertile breeding ground for the seeds of advertising to grow once again for Big Tobacco. Various companies took to social media platforms by sponsoring influencers and celebrities to use traditional tobacco products and E-Cigarettes.

In 2019, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat announced that they will ban influencer marketing of tobacco or tobacco-related products on their platforms. Following intense campaigning from Tobacco-Free Kids, a non-profit advocacy group, and over 125 public health orgainisations, tobacco companies are restricted when it comes to advertising on social networking sites.

Despite these restrictions, like most things on social media, it’s difficult to enforce. What defines advertisement? Big Tobacco is extremely intelligent when it comes to finding legal loopholes. For those who can remember, think back to the days when companies like Marlboro sponsored every sporting event and racing driver because they were banned from television advertising, leading them to find another way onto our screens. The same tactic is at play today, a never-ending cat and mouse game between Big Tobacco and the anti-smoking advocates.

For example, sponsoring an influencer just to use your product is enough to gain access to a widespread audience. Hundreds of posts can be seen from influencers on social media platforms subtly promoting smoking and vaping related products.

So, what impact is this having on young people? Can the tobacco industry really have that much control over who smokes and who doesn’t?

Big Tobacco has always claimed that the main reason for young smokers to take up the habit is peer pressure. While, of course, this is true for many, some will tell you a different story. I spoke to a teacher in a behavioural school whose day-to-day work revolves around working with young children in her local community. When asked about how bad smoking is among young people and what she thinks the contributing factors are, this was her response – “smoking has been an issue for young people for a long time, particularly in low-income families and households where the parents smoke. Children are impressionable. Peer groups tend to be the main contributing factor. However, it can stem from the parenting as well.”

I proceeded by sharing images of celebrities and influencers smoking on their social media platforms, I asked if she feels this has any impact on young smokers? She replied “Of course! As I said, young people are impressionable. Social media opens a whole new can of worms, everyone wants to be trendy, and if that means smoking because someone you like or admire does it, then they will take up smoking.”

Throughout history, money motivates people to make unsavoury and often ill-judged decisions to make a profit. From oil giants to Big Pharma companies in the US, the world is full of billionaires who put profit before our very own well-being. Big Tobacco is no exception. They’ve knowingly lied to the public about the harm smoking causes.

During the 1960s, various scientific research strongly suggested that smoking causes different forms of cancer. Of course, we know this to be true today. However, at the time, this was a groundbreaking discovery for health researchers. The tobacco industry responded by launching a campaign to undermine the scientists and their findings. Tobacco company executives invested heavily in their own “research”; designed to discredit the work of top scientists in the United States.

They started bribing doctors and health professionals to claim that smoking doesn’t cause cancer and isn’t harmful. Some even went as far as to say that smoking is good for you. During the 1930s, Big Tabacco had labels on their products stating that smoking protected against coughs and sore throats. The irony is that smoking causes these symptoms. At the time, many consumers thought that smoking cigarettes was helping to fix their coughs and sore throats. They convinced their customers that smoking couldn’t possibly cause these problems. Camel cigarettes paid doctors to say that while some tobacco products can cause these irritations, Camel cigarettes did not cause them. Consumers at the time had no reason not to believe these claims.

The company behind Lucky Stripes cigarettes, a well-known brand synonymous with the 30s and 40s, bribed over 20,000 US doctors, most by sending them cartons of their product. In return, the doctors signed up to a survey suggesting that their product was less irritating than other tobacco products from rival companies.

Marlboro paid doctors to say that smoking Marlboro cigarettes improved symptoms of throat irritation. They released their so-called findings in local newspapers disguised as scientific research, while it’s nothing more than paid propaganda.

In 1938 Big Tobacco’s luck began to turn, a study from top doctors who were immune from bribes found that death rates among smokers were considerably higher than non-smokers. The New York Times ran a headline: ‘Tobacco called a life-shortener.’

The article was one of the first times a major publication ran a story of this magnitude against the tobacco industry, which was a powerful and influential institution at the time.

For centuries people have wondered about tobacco health implications. Although, proving this theory was a different matter. In 1604, King James of England wrote – ‘tobacco was dangerous for the brain and lungs.’

Anti-smoking researchers have been active for hundreds of years. Constant propaganda-style influence from the tobacco industry still leads people into smoking today, even though we all know the habit leads to fatal diseases. How can these billionaire businessmen have such a grasp over so much of the public?

We cannot forget that consenting adults can make their own decisions regarding their bodies. But what about the impact on children? Big Tobacco has shown throughout history that they have been willing to get our kids hooked on smoking for profit.

As mentioned, by the 1960s, the harm smoking caused was widely common knowledge. Sales began to slump. This led tobacco companies into a predicament. How do they get would-be smokers to take up the habit? They concluded that they needed to create a nicotine-dependent generation. A solution was to target young people, a high-up executive within the industry quoted – ‘If they got lips, we want them!’ Research shows that 9 out of 10 smokers had their first cigarette by the time they were 18.

These conversations were all taking place within the industry. To the outside world, tobacco companies would not admit their intention to promote their products to children. Yet, to survive, they had to do exactly that. Big Tobacco can’t risk a whole generation growing up hearing anti-smoking content, so they needed to influence them while still young and impressionable.

Even though marketing campaigns; had an impact on young smokers, it is difficult to prove that tobacco companies did this on purpose. Except we can prove that they targeted children deliberately, several whistle-blowers have since come forward in various court hearings and lawsuits. In 1974 a damming leak from a meeting within R.J. Renyolds discussed the topic that 14-24-year-olds were the future: – ‘thus our advertising strategy becomes clear for our established brands, direct advertising appeals to the younger smoker.’

The evidence is endless; this article could have gone on for pages and pages going into grim detail of how the tobacco giants have targeted children, bribed officials, intimidated whistle-blowers, their selfishness in the name of profit meets no match. Thankfully, people are far more cautious about the harms of smoking today, while there is still an issue with smoking-related diseases. The Tobacco industry does not have the same grip it used to have other the world’s population. Regulation, scientific research, and law changes have hindered their influence. We can hope that it stays this way.

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