The History of Tobacco Companies Targeting Youth

Last Updated: April 4, 2019

Evidence shows that the tobacco industry has targeted young people for decades. One tobacco company even referred to them as “replacement smokers.” 2 And while many teens think they can quit whenever they want, out of every 4 young smokers, only 1 will quit before adulthood. Of those 3 remaining smokers, 1 will die from tobacco-related causes. 3

While it’s a common misperception that cigarette smoking is an adult choice, the reality is nearly all smokers started using the highly addictive product before they became adults. In fact, 9 out of 10 cigarette smokers start before they turn 18, and 98% first try smoking by age 26. 1 Therefore, smoking is very much a youth problem. This is no coincidence. From using cartoons in advertisements in the past to candy-flavored tobacco products still today, the tobacco industry has multiple sketchy strategies to entice young people to get addicted to tobacco.

In a landmark 2006 judgment, U.S District Judge Gladys Kessler found that the major U.S. tobacco companies violated civil racketeering laws (RICO) for conspiring over decades to deceive the American public about their marketing to youth, the health effects of smoking, and the addictiveness of nicotine. 4

Candy and Fruit Flavors

Candy and fruit flavors are appealing to teens and are a key ingredient in the tobacco industry’s plans to lure them into a lifetime of addiction. Flavors mask the bad taste of tobacco, making it easier for youth to start using. 5, 6, 7 This eventually prompted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban flavored cigarettes – excluding menthol – in 2009 under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.

However, federal law does not ban flavorings in other products such as smokeless tobacco, cigars, hookah and e-cigarettes. A 2014 American Medical Association study found that more than two-thirds of youth reported using tobacco products because “they come in flavors I like.” 8 The same study found that nearly 81% of youth aged 12 to 17 who had ever used a tobacco product, reported that the first product they used was flavored. 9

Tobacco Ads & Discounts

Although the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement banned tobacco companies from using cartoons in ads and marketing practices that targeted kids and teens under 18, the tobacco industry continues to reach young people. The 2012 U.S. Surgeon General report concluded that there is a causal relationship between tobacco industry advertising and promotional efforts, and the initiation and progression of tobacco use among young people. 10 A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study from 2012-2016 proved that tobacco company advertising and promotion continues to influence young people to start using tobacco. 11

One of Big Tobacco’s most concerning marketing strategies is advertising heavily at point-of-sale retail outlets, like at convenience stores and near schools and playgrounds, where ads are clearly visible from outside the stores. This strategy works for the tobacco industry: 70% of adolescents shop in convenience stores at least once a week, 12 and the likelihood of tobacco initiation more than doubled for youth who visited a store with point-of-sale tobacco ads at least twice a week. 13

Tobacco companies focus heavily on reducing the price of tobacco products with discounts and coupons, to make them affordable and increase sales. 14 The tobacco industry spent 83% of their industry spending, $7.25 billion, on price discounts. 15 According to the 2010 Surgeon General report, pricing strategies used to make tobacco products cheaper lead to increased youth initiation, experimentation and regular smoking. 16

Is History Repeating Itself?

The same advertising tricks Big Tobacco used years ago to get teens addicted to nicotine are being used to entice a new generation of young people to use e-cigarettes. 17 The themes used in advertising for cigarettes – many of which are now banned – are being used today to advertise e-cigarettes. The CDC believes exposure to e-cigarette ads may be contributing to increases in e-cigarette use among youth. 18

While e-cigarette companies claim that their products are intended for adults, prevalence rates – or the amount of youth using these products – tell a vastly different story. For starters, e-cigarette use, or vaping, among teens has skyrocketed in just one year. In 2018, one in four Florida high school students reported current e-cigarette use – an astounding 58% increase compared to 2017. 19 Meanwhile, only about 4% of adults in Florida are using e-cigarettes. 20

The most popular e-cigarette brand among young people is JUUL, 21 a device shaped like a USB drive that is available in a variety of flavors, is easy to conceal, and has high levels of nicotine. 22 JUUL experienced a 600% increase in sales in just one year and is now the most commonly sold e-cigarette in the U.S. 23, 24, The dramatic increase in youth vaping occurred shortly after the increased JUUL sales. In response, the FDA declared youth vaping a nationwide epidemic in September 2018. 25

The tobacco industry – which has preyed on youth for decades – has appeared undeterred by these concerning trends. In December 2018, Marlboro cigarette maker Altria Group Inc., purchased a 35% stake in JUUL Labs Inc. for $12.8 billion. 26 By the end of 2018, JUUL dominated the e-cigarette market with a 76% market share. 27 Other manufacturers have launched similar pod-based, rechargeable devices that also resemble a USB drive. R.J. Reynolds (RJR), the makers of Newport and Camel, launched Vuse Alto, 28 29 and Imperial Brands, the makers of Winston and Kool, launched myblu.

A Stanford University School of Medicine study analyzed JUUL’s marketing campaign between JUUL’s launch in 2015 and 2018, including thousands of Instagram posts, emails and ads, and concluded that JUUL’s marketing “was patently youth-oriented.” 30 Although JUUL’s public mission statement is to “improve the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers,” JUUL hired young, attractive social media influencers and created hashtags like “#juul, #juulvapor, #switchtojuul” to attract young people.

We do not know what Big Tobacco’s involvement means for the future of e-cigarettes. But Big Tobacco has proven over decades that they cannot be trusted.

You can help by educating yourself about these new products, dispelling myths among your friends and family, and talking to your kids about the serious concerns around vaping and nicotine addiction.

For more information about the youth vaping epidemic, please visit tobaccofreeflorida.com/current-issues/teen-vaping.

1 Health Care Needs of Gay Men and Lesbians in the United States. Council Report. 1996, Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 275(17), pp.1254-1359.

2 American Lung Association (2010) Smoking out a Deadly Threat: Tobacco Use in the LGBT Community. American Lung Association, Washington DC. http://www.lung.org/assets/documents/research/lgbt-report.pdf

3 Kates J, Ranji U, Beamesderfer A, Salganicoff A, Dawson L. Health and Access to Care and Coverage for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Individuals in the U.S. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation 2015; Issue Brief [accessed 2016 Mar 17].

4 Lee JGL, Griffin GK, Melvin CL Tobacco use among sexual minorities in the USA, 1987 to May 2007: a systematic review Tobacco Control 2009;18:275-282

5 Fallin A, Goodin AJ, King BA. Menthol Cigarette Smoking among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Adults. American journal of preventive medicine. 2015;48(1):93-97.

6 Smokefree.gov. Menthol Cigarettes. Bethesda (MD): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, 2015 [accessed 2017 Oct 27].

7 Kann L, Olsen EO, McManus T, Harris WA, Shanklin SL, Flint KH, Queen B, Lowry R, Chyen D, Whittle L, Thornton J, Lim C, Yamakawa Y, Brener N, Zaza S. Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Related Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9-12 – United States and Selected Sites, 2015. MMWR Surveill Summ. 2016;65(9):1-202. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.ss6509a1. PubMed PMID: 27513843.

8 Kann L, Olsen EO, McManus T, Harris WA, Shanklin SL, Flint KH, Queen B, Lowry R, Chyen D, Whittle L, Thornton J, Lim C, Yamakawa Y, Brener N, Zaza S. Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Related Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9-12 – United States and Selected Sites, 2015. MMWR Surveill Summ. 2016;65(9):1-202. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.ss6509a1. PubMed PMID: 27513843.

9 PHILIP MORRIS USA; ROBINSON Y. CEM’S GAY AND LESBIAN MARKETING EFFORTS. 1997

10 An Analysis of Tobacco Industry Marketing to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Populations: Strategies for Mainstream Tobacco Control and Prevention. Stevens P, et al. 2004, Health Promotion Practice, Supplement to Vol. 5 (3).

11 Offen N, Smith EA, Malone RE. Tobacco Industry Targeting of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community: A White Paper. San Francisco, CA: University of California, San Francisco, Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education; 2008.

12 The DC Center for the LGBT Community. Smoking and the LGBT Community. Washington DC, 2015 [accessed 2016 Mar 17].

13 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Best Practices User Guide: Health Equity in Tobacco Prevention and Control. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2015.

14 Health Care Needs of Gay Men and Lesbians in the United States. Council Report. 1996, Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 275(17), pp.1254-1359.

15 American Lung Association (2010) Smoking out a Deadly Threat: Tobacco Use in the LGBT Community. American Lung Association, Washington DC.

16 Kates J, Ranji U, Beamesderfer A, Salganicoff A, Dawson L. Health and Access to Care and Coverage for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Individuals in the U.S. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation 2015; Issue Brief [accessed 2016 Mar 17].

17 “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons and Tobacco Use.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 Feb. 2017, www.cdc.gov/tobacco/disparities/lgbt/index.htm.

18 The DC Center for the LGBT Community. Smoking and the LGBT Community. Washington DC, 2015 [accessed 2016 Mar 17].



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