EACH YEAR, AN ESTIMATED 3 MILLION SMOKERS worldwide die from tobacco-related diseases. Millions more kick the smoking habit.
These basic facts pose a unique problem for the tobacco industry. Tobacco companiesí survival depends on the successful recruitment of new smokers, the vast majority of whom - approximately 90 percent in the United States - are children and teenagers. While there are undoubtedly multiple reasons young people choose to smoke, health activists charge that the marketing schemes of the major tobacco corporations target minors and drive up the youth smoking rate.
Tobacco companies deny that the massive sums they spend on advertising and promotion - more than $3 billion annually in the United States alone - are designed to appeal to children. They say they advertise only to influence the brand preference of current smokers. But the widespread use of cartoon characters, rock stars and sports to promote cigarettes leaves little doubt that young people are primary targets of tobacco companiesí marketing campaigns.
Mickey Mouse meets his match
Health advocates point to R.J. Reynoldsí enormously successful Camel cartoon advertising campaign as one of the most blatant efforts by tobacco companies to market cigarettes to teens and children. Launched in the United States in 1988, the Camel ads feature a cartoon camel character called Joe Camel, who appears in hot tub and as a player in a band, often with women nearby. Many of the ads feature the Hard Pack, a blues band consisting of Joe and four other cartoon characters. The Joe Camel character is based on a Camel cartoon used in France in the early 1970s to circumvent a prohibition on the use of human models in tobacco advertising.
R.J. Reynolds built on the campaign in fall 1991 with the introduction of a "Camel Cash" promotion in the United States. This promotion offers coupons resembling one dollar bills in every pack of filtered Camel cigarettes. The "Camel C-notes" feature Joe Camel, in sunglasses and smoking, dressed as George Washington. Consumers can redeem the coupons for "smooth stuff" offered in the Camel Cash catalogue. The catalogue offers merchandise with obvious appeal to young people: "flip-flops" (rubber beach sandals), insulators for beverage cans, jackets, towels, t-shirts and hats, all decorated with the Joe Camel cartoon character. Because each C-note only has a value of one, earning some of the more expensive promotional items requires purchasing hundreds of packs by the June 1992 deadline.
The Joe Camel campaign has had a dramatic impact on Camelís popularity among U.S. children and teens. Prior to the campaign, Camel cigarettes were smoked by less than 1 percent of smokers under age 18. By 1990, that figure had risen to 33 percent, according to one of a set of studies on tobacco and youth published in the December 11, 1991 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Among youth, Camel is now surpassed only by Marlboro, and it is particularly popular among 12-to-17- year-olds. An industry source interviewed by Adweekís Marketing Week noted, "Camel used to be the brand that was so harsh it was for cuckoos. But now, when you see teenage boys - people the cigarette companies arenít supposed to be targeting in the first place - going crazy for this guy, you know theyíre hitting their target."
The JAMA studies reveal that the Joe Camel campaign has been tremendously successful in raising brand recognition among young people, who, one of the studies shows, are able to identify the Joe Camel character at a much higher rate than adults.
The most widely publicized of the JAMA studies highlights the impact of the campaign on children, including the very young. Nearly one third of 3-year-olds correctly identified the Joe Camel cartoon character as representing cigarettes, while among six- year-old children, Joe was recognized at the same rate as the Mickey Mouse logo used for the Disney television channel. Among secondary school students, 94 percent were able to identify Joe, compared to only 58 percent of adults over the age of 21. Recognition and popularity of the camel figure peak in the adolescent age group. The widespread recognition among children has concrete implications, according to another of the JAMA studies, which found a correlation between cigarette brand recognition and consumption.
In an official company response, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco disputed the JAMA studiesí essential findings, claiming that "Camelís potential customers are the 48 million adult smokers [in the United States]," not youth. "It is not in the tobacco industryís best interest for youth to smoke," the statement said, since youth smoking "increases the potential for government restrictions on our ability to communicate with adult smokers." The statement denied that the Camel ads promote teen smoking: "Youth see literally hundreds of advertising messages intended for adults, but that does not mean they take action on any of them. Peer pressure and parental influence repeatedly have been cited by young people to be the main reasons they try smoking." Reynolds also pointed to a Tobacco Institute program called "Itís the Law" (a reference to age restrictions on tobacco purchases) as evidence of the industry commitment to prevent tobacco sales to children.
Copy cats ... and penguins and puffins
The success of Reynoldís Camel campaign appears to have spawned other tobacco company cartoon advertising campaigns. Brown & Williamson, a U.S. company owned by British American Tobacco (BAT), is testing a cartoon penguin to promote Kool brand cigarettes. This cartoon character has buzz-cut hair, day-glo sneakers, sunglasses, and is very conscious of being "cool." Brown & Williamsonís announcement of the test campaign is written in the voice of the penguin, who explains, "My older cousin, Willie the Penguin, represented Kool for three decades. Letís face it, heís gotten on in years. That, and the fact that Iím unique, colorful, good-looking - and very modest. Some people think Iím a little irreverent. (So what if I do have a little fun on the job?) I will admit to being just a bit unconventional."
Brown & Williamson claims that the new ad campaign is an update of the Willie the Penguin cartoon that appeared in Kool ads from 1933 to 1960 and is designed to appeal to young adults, 21-35 years old. Robert Fitzmaurice, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Brown & Williamson, reports that research "indicated it is very much an adult symbol."
The test ads play on the word "cool;" one ad shows four varieties of Kool cigarettes and the text, "Now, you got four chances to get Kool. Donít blow it." Although some industry analysts speculate Brown & Williamsonís advertising spending for the Kool campaign will not be the same scale as Camelís, Brown & Williamsonís press release indicates plans to provide the necessary support for the campaign: "Of course that takes big bucks, including all travel expenses (and when youíre coming from Antarctica, thatís not chicken feed!). Of course Iím worth it." In addition to billboards and print ads, the cartoon penguin will appear on promotional items.
Philip Morris has also introduced a cartoon promotional character, a stylized puffin logo for its Benson and Hedges brand in the United Kingdom. The symbol resembles the bird used by the Puffin Books company, a childrenís books publisher. Puffin Books asked the British Advertising Standards Authority to rule that Philip Morrisís character is an infringement on its logo, but the agency rejected the complaint, asserting that the bird was "too surreal and too dissimilar from Puffin Booksí logo" to confuse children. The British Medical Association, among many others, denounced the finding, but Philip Morris is now free to use the puffin.
Hooking kids around the world
Youth smoking is not just a problem in the United States, where the smoking rate among teens is estimated at approximately 15 percent.
Much of the international youth smoking problem can be attributed to multinational tobacco companies, which are at the cutting edge of efforts to hook young people on cigarettes. Slick marketing techniques associate smoking with Western, and especially U.S., lifestyles. Operating in countries with few or poorly enforced restrictions on tobacco promotions, the tobacco multinationals are able to employ methods that would not be permitted in their home countries.
Rock music is a favorite medium of the tobacco pushers. At the Canton Disco in the Peopleís Republic of China, Reynolds sponsors live concerts, paying the fees of internationally popular singers. The tobacco company distributes free cigarette samples during the concerts, displays Salem posters and advertises Salem cigarettes during and after the show. In Beijing, Philip Morris is responsible for the "Marlboro American Music Hour," which features songs by Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, and is especially popular among students. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a record store called the Salem Power Station wraps its products in advertisements for Salem cigarettes. Nearby, a Camel Adventure Gear store sells Camel brand items. In Budapest, at a December 1991 Philip Morris-sponsored rock concert, young women dressed in red-and-white Marlboro suits dispensed free samples of Marlboro cigarettes, and concertgoers who lit up the cigarettes in front of the women received a complimentary pair of designer Marlboro sunglasses.
The tobacco companiesí goal in employing these rock music promotions is to "associate [cigarette] brand imagery with international pop stars, youth and pleasure," says Greg Connolly, director of the Massachusetts Office on Nonsmoking and Health.
Sponsoring televised rock concerts and videos also offers the tobacco companies a way to circumvent television advertising restrictions. In Hong Kong, where television ads for tobacco are banned, Philip Morris sponsored the "Marlboro Rock-In," a series of televised rock concerts. And a televised Madonna concert in Hong Kong became the Salem Madonna Concert when R.J. Reynolds sponsored the show and superimposed the Salem cigarette logo over the concert introduction.
Domestic companies in most of the world are unable to compete with the marketing wizardry of multinationals like Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and BAT. In Japan, for example, young smokers who associate U.S. cigarette brands with style and glamour are making Japan an increasingly lucrative market for foreign tobacco companies.
"All I remember concerning tobacco ads are Philip Morris, Lucky Strike ... nothing about Japanese tobacco," says Yuko Watanabe, a 21-year-old Japanese college student. U.S. company ads generally feature couples or groups riding a motorcycle or singing while Japanese ads typically feature a solitary man smoking. While the high smoking rate among Japanese men is falling slowly, the decline is being offset by the rising rate among women, with most of the increases among young women.
The tobacco companiesí targeting of young people is not going unchallenged. Governments, prompted by health advocates, are increasingly placing restrictions on tobacco advertising and on children and teensí access to cigarettes.
Dr. Michael Carr-Gregg, executive director of the Drug Foundation, and Dr. Alan Gray, medical director of the Mary Potter Hospice, the main proponents of the plain-pack idea, say their proposal is based on a 1990 study by researchers at Otago University in Dunedin, New Zealand which found that generic packaging is significantly less appealing to young people. Carr-Gregg also points to a U.S. study which found that only 21 percent of Marlboro smokers said they would buy the cigarettes in plain brown packs, even at half the price.
Carr-Gregg argues that generic packaging is essential to "break the brand image" which he says attracts young people to cigarettes. He says the proposal is an essential component of a complete ban on tobacco advertising and promotion. New Zealand already has one of the most restrictive anti-tobacco laws in the world, and has reduced its overall smoking rate from 28 to 23 percent since 1989.
The challenge for health activists is to devise ways to counter the influence of the tobacco multinationals, which command resources far in excess of a developing countryís health ministry or of a non-governmental health advocacy group. The task is doubly difficult, since the tobacco companies display an incredible knack for circumventing - or, in some cases, simply violating - restrictive rules. How well health activists can offset the tobacco companiesí marketing prowess will be a life-and-death matter for millions of children.
Detailed documents obtained during a legal battle over the banning of tobacco advertising in Canada reveal the plans of Imperial Tobacco Ltd., a subsidiary of British American Tobacco (BAT), to target 12-to-17- year-olds for its Playerís Filter brand of cigarettes in the 1970s and early 1980s. The documents also include a confidential 1988 marketing strategy that recognizes that those firms "which respond most effectively to the needs of younger smokers" dominate the market.
BAT denies that it purposefully targets youth, claiming that any research project for youth was intended to give insight into older age groups. However, Imperial has come to dominate the Canadian cigarette market in the past 20 years by recruiting new smokers who now range in age from 15 to 35.
Additional evidence of the industryís intent comes from Barbarians at the Gate, Brian Burrough and John Helyarís chronicle of the takeover of RJR Nabisco. According to Burrough and Helyar, one of the unsuccessful suitors for RJR Nabisco, Ted Forstmann, was particularly uncomfortable with the industryís focus on teens. They write, "Debating future [tobacco] demand in the teen market made him feel like a drug pusher."
Vending machines make it even easier for kids to buy cigarettes. Each day, 450,000 underage smokers buy cigarettes from vending machines in the United States alone.
About 12 percent of childrenís tobacco purchases in the United States are made from vending machines, but the proportion approaches 30 to 40 percent in the youngest age groups, according to Richard Daynard, head of the Tobacco Products Liability Project.
The reason younger children make their purchases more frequently from vending machines is simple. "At the critical point when people are starting [to smoke], experimenting and afraid" of getting caught, says Daynard, "they are not afraid to drop quarters in a vending machine."
The vending machine problem is even more serious in other countries than it is in the United States. In Japan, vending machines, which can be found on almost every street corner, make it easy for those under 20 to skirt the (rarely enforced) law prohibiting them from smoking. "Japan is a vending machine society," says Robert Roper, president of Philip Morris in Tokyo, noting that there is one vending machine for every 13 people in Japan. Half of all tobacco sales in Japan are self-service from vending machines. The Japanese tobacco company Japan Tobacco International controls a well-organized vending machine network, but foreign companies, whose market share is rapidly growing, also rely heavily on the machines.
In South Korea, vending machines have proven to be a unique tool to increase foreign firmsí tobacco market share. Foreign cigarette brands were introduced in South Korea in 1988. These firms face tough advertising restrictions, which have made it difficult for foreign firms to gain a foothold in the market. In 1988, only 300 vending machines had been installed in South Korea. By June 1991, that figure had grown to 7,500 units, with foreign firms accounting for 6,600 of them. The vending machines typically feature brand names from R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris.