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Scientific Activities - Actividades Científicas

Honorary Committee Lecture

Tobacco: Seducing the young - I
Published in ProCOR

Bernard Lown, MB
Awarded with Nobel Prize

Seducing the young: the crusade against children

The Facts - Magnitude of the Problem

Ensnaring the young - Canadian revelations



Seducing the young: the crusade against children

The tobacco companies have argued that they are not legally liable for health endangering behavior of informed adults.  Given the deliberate focus to entrap youngsters in life-long addiction, this is less an issue of exercise of free choice than exploiting callow youth and doing violence to children. The purveyors of tobacco products learned early that if a person starts smoking as a teenager, the habit will persist lifelong and generate a daily revenue stream for 20 or more years.(1) Tobacco corporations have therefore invested fathomless treasures to ensnare the very young in this hapless addiction.  Governments have looked the other way as the tobacco industry succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of Colombian drug lords.  The recent retreat in tobacco use in DEVELOPED countries derives, in no small measure, from public revulsion at the conscienceless seduction of the young and helpless.  A successful anti-tobacco struggle to be waged in DEVELOPING countries would require detailed knowledge of how young people are hooked as well as an understanding of the diabolical machinations of the tobacco multinational consortia.

The Facts - Magnitude of the Problem

In the USA, every hour around the clock more than 350 people will die prematurely due to tobacco use. The daily number of victims is equivalent to the crash of 15 fully loaded Jumbo jets. Smoking kills more people than AIDS, car accidents, alcohol, homicides, illegal drugs and fires combined. (2)  In a potentially lethal enterprise such as smoking, dead customers continuously need to be replaced.  The young are major targets, being the most susceptible.

In the USA, tobacco sales to minors are illegal in forty-four states. The laws, however, are weak and poorly enforced.  Nationwide surveys of stores selling cigarettes over the counter have shown that three out of four sell them to children as young as 11. Between 60-90% of children report buying their own cigarettes. (3,4)  Moreover, vending machines dispense cigarettes to an estimated 450,000 children every day.  More than a million kids annually become regular smokers, tobacco chewers, or cigars chompers. (2)  Approximately 88% of tobacco use occurs for the first time among those under 18 years of age. (5)  Despite extensive anti-tobacco campaigns in the USA, the message from the tobacco companies continues to prove far more seductive as demonstrated by increasing prevalence of cigarette smoking among adolescents during the early 1990s.

A recent Center of Disease Control (CDC) report presents data on tobacco use among high school students. (6) To determine prevalence rates of cigarette, smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco or snuff) and cigar use among students in grades 9-12, CDC analyzed data from the 1997 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). The conclusions were based on a representative sample of 16,262 students in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.



Percentage of high school students who currently used cigarettes,
smokeless tobacco, or cigars, by race and grade. (6)


   Smokeless Tobacco   Cigars 


39.7 12.2 22.5
Black 22.7 1.6 19.4
Hispanic 34.0 5.1 20.3

         High School Grade 



9.7  17.3
10 35.3 6.8 22.3
11 36.6 10.0 24.2
12 39.6 10.5 23.8


In 1997,  42.7% of students used cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, or cigars during the 30 days preceding the survey. Tobacco consumption increases with advancing high school grade. While adult smoking is in sharp decline, dismaying is the fact that among young people the habit is taking greater hold.  For example, the prevalence of current cigarette smoking among U.S. high school students increased from 27.5% in 1991 to 36.4% in 1997.  Overall student smoking rose by 32% during these six years.  This was far more among black students, with an astonishing increase of 80%. These figures may be an under-estimation since they do not deal with students who are high school dropouts  or had never enrolled in high school, who may be even more prone to tobacco. Thus nicotine addiction, including cigars and smokeless tobacco, has a stranglehold on a major proportion of American young people and is already inflicting organic health problems. (7)

While the epidemic disease of smoking begins in childhood it plays out in adulthood.  According to the CDC more than five million children under the age of 18 will die later in life from tobacco related disease.(8)  The same phenomena are observed globally, in that the numbers of young smokers are growing rapidly and tobacco use begins  at an ever younger age.  Trends now in evidence suggest that more than 200 million present day children and teenagers will die during adulthood from tobacco related disease worldwide.(9)


Ensnaring the young - Canadian revelations

The tobacco industry has solemnly insisted that it spends billions of dollars in advertising and promotion exclusively to persuade adult smokers to switch to their brand and to retain brand loyalty.  Top tobacco executives have denied even under oath, that they ever market to children.  Executives at R. J. Reynolds, the makers of Camels, have been categoric that the spectacularly successful Joe Camel cartoon character was never intended to appeal to children.  A Canadian lawsuit exposed these claims as blatant lies.

About a decade ago a lawsuit by tobacco companies challenged the constitutionality of Canada's Tobacco Product Control Act of 1988. The Canadian Act severely restricted cigarette advertising and promotion. The plaintiffs were Imperial Tobacco Ltd., owned by the giant British-American Tobacco Company and RJR-Macdonald Inc., owned by RJR Nabisco, the U.S. conglomerate. (10)

In defending the Act of 1988, the Canadian government placed in evidence internal corporate documents that describe with stunning candor how the industry deliberately hooked children.  For example the marketing plan for the Matinee brand promoted by Imperial Tobacco Ltd. stated, "Young smokers represent the major opportunity group for the cigarette industry. We should therefore determine their attitude to smoking and health and how this might change over time." 

To accomplish this objective, Imperial launched in depth studies in the early 198O's, which continued over thirteen years.  These researches and ongoing market assessments examined the smoking attitudes and practices of more than 211,000 Canadians. The goal was to discover why teenager's start to smoke and how they feel about being smokers.

Imperial Tobacco's investigations generated a number of conclusions, among these were some of the following:   --"Serious efforts to learn to smoke occur between ages 12 and 13 in most cases." --"The adolescent seeks to display his new urge for independence with a symbol, and cigarettes are such a symbol." --"However intriguing smoking was at 11, 12 or 13, by the age of 16 or 17 many regretted their use of cigarettes for health reasons and because they felt unable to stop smoking when they want to." 

One of Imperial's research projects designated Plus/Minus concluded that young starting smokers; --"No longer disbelieve the dangers of smoking, but they almost universally assume these risks will not apply to themselves because they will not become addicted. Once addiction does take place, it becomes necessary for the smoker to make peace with the accepted hazards." --"The desire to quit seems to come earlier now than before, even prior to the end of high school."  --"However, the desire to quit, and actually carrying it out, are two quite different things, as the would-be quitter soon learns."(10)

In its 1988 marketing plan, marked  "Personal and Confidential" on every page, stated, "If the last ten years have taught us anything, it is that the industry is dominated by the companies who respond most effectively to the needs of younger smokers." [Emphasis in original.]

The facts emerging from these tobacco surveys honed a strategy for ensnaring youngsters in a lifelong addiction. Imperial Tobacco translated the information into effective sales. This is proved by its growing share of the Canadian cigarette market largely attributed to the recruitment of teenager's into the ranks of smokers.

Targeting of children In the USA approximately 2 million minors start smoking annually, about half of whom begin by age 13 and one quarter by age 11.  According to the purveyors of cigarettes these are among the "most important customers." (10).  The recruitment of young smokers is not because of enormous profitability. These youthful customers account for but a small fraction of total sales.  For example, in 1988, American children under 18 spent $1.26 billion for a billion packs of cigarettes including 26 million containers of smokeless tobacco (snuff). The profit for manufacturers was $221 million or less than a tenth of what they realize in a given year.   Capturing the youth market has a more lucrative objective, namely, gaining a steady flow of tobacco consumers during the long stretch of adulthood.

Brain washing of young people is part of a well thought out and deliberate policy. After decades of secrecy and repeated denials in public statements and sworn testimony that they sought to sell cigarettes to those under 18, the smoking guns on targeting kids are now being exposed to wide public view. These are the inner tobacco memoranda and documents, which have been subpoenaed in anti-tobacco litigation in nearly every state in the US. 

The documents are not circumspect, but are coached in words of brazen explicitness. For example, one internal document of 1975 stated that, "To ensure increased and longer term growth for Camel filter, the brand must increase share penetration among the 14-24 age group, which have a new set of more liberal values and which represent tomorrow's cigarette business." (10)  A 1976 10-year planning forecast presented to the board of directors of the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, the nation's second largest cigarette maker,  called for a new brand for children as young as age 14 and a 1980 memo to the company chairman to reverse the decline among youngsters aged 14 to 17. (11)  Other memos describe the age group between 14 and 24 as "tomorrow's cigarette business"  and vital to the company's long term prosperity and survival. (12)  As recently as 1998 R.J. Reynolds planned to saturate areas where young people gathered, like fast food restaurants, video game arcades, and outdoor bask! etball  courts with billboards promoting their products (13)

The success of tobacco companies in reaching young people in no small measure relates to the sponsorship of sports events and identifying smoking with youth idols such as, movie stars, top notch athletes, popular entertainers and cult figures. Tobacco companies have also identified the venues for their message that will exert the greatest impact on children. Much advertising was concentrated on movie theaters.  Teenagers are three times as likely as adults to be frequent moviegoers. Media studies at the University of North London looked at the 10 top box office films in 1990 and 1995 and found that the number of smoking incidents increased from 83 to about 300.  This subliminal subversion is no accident. Sylvester Stallone, Sean Connery, and others took cars, cash, and gifts as part of the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corporations $1.5 million spending on product placement.(14)

Moviegoer, a slick publication promoted by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.,  had been a free handout at movie theaters around the country. Each issue of the 24-page magazine included five full pages of advertising for Camel and Salem cigarettes; there were no other ads. The aim was to  reach impressionable youngsters at a place  where they were  prepared to suspend beliefs and value judgments.  Against the subliminal advertising power of cult figures as they are pictured smoking, fulminations by teachers and parentsabout the harm of the weed may be as effective "as waving a ski pole against an avalanche." (14)

There are no limits that tobacco companies will not consider or resort to.  Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, makers of Kools, floated the idea of adding sweet- flavors like apple or Coca-Cola to products. "It's a well known fact that teenagers like sweet products," the memo said,  "Honey might be considered."(10)

Richard Kluger, author of a recently published authoritative book on smoking, commented, "In a case of supreme irony, not to say perversity, the more evidence accumulated by science on the ravaging effects of tobacco, the more lucrative the business has become, and the wider the margin of profit."   He poses the question, "Are the tobacco companies moral lepers preying on the ignorant, the miserable, the emotionally vulnerable, the constitutionally susceptible?" (15)



1. Department of Health and Human Services. Preventing tobacco use  among young people: a report of the Surgeon General  Washington     D.C: Government Printing Office  1994-5, 58.
2.  Lynch BS,  Bonnie RS. eds. Growing up tobacco free: preventing   nicotine addiction in children and youths Washington DC: National     Academy Press, 1994: 8.
3. Slade J. Learning to fight Nicotiana  tobacum  New J Med  1988;85:102-106.
4. Pierce JP, Mills SL, Marcus S E.  Accessibility of  cigarettes to youth  aged 12-17 years -United States.  MMWR 1992;41:485-88.
5.  US Department of Health and Human Services. Preventing tobacco  use among young people: a report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta:      US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health  Service, CDC, 1994.
6.Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (CDC) Mass    Medical Society 1998;47/ No 12 April 3.
7. Giovino GA, Henningfield J, Tomar SL, Escobedo LE, Slade J.  Epidemiology of tobacco use and dependence. Epidemiol Rev      1995;17:48~5.
8. National Cancer Institute. Cigars: health effects and trends. Bethesda, Maryland: US Department of Health and Human   Services, National Institutes of Health, 1998; NIH publication no.  98-4302. (Smoking and tobacco control monograph no.9) (in press).
9. Peto R, Lopez A, Boreham J. et al Mortality from smoking in developing countries 1950-2,000; indirect estimates from national  vital statistics. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1994.
10. Mintz M.  Marketing tobacco to children. The Nation May 6, 1991.
11. Josefson D. Tobacco company targeted marketing campaign at  teenagers, BMJ 1998;316:330
12.  Editorial.  Hooked on young smokers. New york Times; January 16, 1997.
13.  Meier B.  Files of Reynolds tobacco show effort on the young New  York Times  Jan 15, 1998.
14. Carnall D. Smoking on Celluloid. BMJ 1998; 316:712.
15. Kluger R.  Ashes to ashes: America's hundred-year cigarette war,  the public health, and the unabashed triumph of Phillip Morris.         Knopf,  832 pages, 1997