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December 13, 1996



THE tobacco industry has long claimed that its gigantic advertising and sponsorship budgets aren't aimed at getting more people to smoke but merely at persuading existing smokers to change brands. It certainly must be a comforting argument for them, Riven that between a third and a half of all smokers end up dying from cancers and heart diseases caused by their addiction. Indeed, some companies even manage to see virtue in their ads, claiming that they help turn smokers towards lighter products. More's the pity then that a chance to test the tobacco industry's logic has just been missed. This month, the Canadian government introduced new legislation restricting tobacco sales and advertising. But fearing a lengthy legal challenge, it did not go ahead with rules that would have forced companies to sell their cigarettes in generic packages with the name of the brand in standard lettering. Recent research has shown that such a move would break the psychological link between the images used in ads and a particular brand. With that link gone, tobacco companies should, by their own logic, have stopped advertising.

We will never know how the experiment would have turned out, but there are reasons to believe that tobacco advertising is not aimed at established smokers but at persuading young people to begin smoking.

Adults are certainly not good targets. Established smokers are remarkably loyal to particular brands and if they do switch, they tend to move to variants of their regular smoke. Adults who don't smoke are rarely persuaded to begin. American studies show that 90 per cent of all new smokers are under 18 years old.

In the US, where tobacco companies spend $6 billion a year on advertising, there is plenty of evidence that young people are influenced by tobacco advertising.

One study by the US National Cancer Institute showed that 86 per cent of children who smoke prefer the three most heavily advertised brands. And after Camel cigarettes introduced its Joe Camel cartoon character, it hugely increased its market share among the very youngest smokers.

Of course, the tobacco companies will claim that scientific proof that their ads change human behaviour is lacking. But the percentage of young smokers is rising. According to studies by the University of Michigan and the Centers for Disease Control, almost 42 per cent of white teenagers in the US now smoke, the highest percentage for 16 years. Five years ago it was only 25 per cent. In the UK, the same trend is at work.

Many people may think that the war against tobacco is being won because more adults are giving up smoking and tobacco is disappearing from workplaces. But the real battle is to stop people from starting.

That requires multiple approaches. Norway provides an example. It banned tobacco advertising and sponsorship over twenty years ago and initially, sales fell. But later they rose again. The Canadian legislation contains several good new ideas. It forces much more comprehensive listing of the dangerous chemicals found in tobacco. And it also attempts to get rid of "lifestyle" advertising which presents smoking as desirable and attractive. As well as prohibiting virtually all advertising outside publications with a primarily adult readership, it bans the use of tobacco brand names and logos on all youthoriented products, such as baseball caps.

The UK now begins to look laggardly in its measures to reduce smoking: the rising figures for smoking among teenagers show these just are not working. Would strengthening the usual measures---higher tobacco prices, more education, bans on all tobacco ads and sponsorship---do the trick? Or are there deeper forces at work?

It is possible that smoking is now seen as an attractive statement for alienated young antiheroes. That would be hard to study scientifically. Perhaps studying successful cigarette ads would Provide some clues.