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Tobacco marketing has morphed, but it still cleverly targets young people

The industry promotes a product that harms us all through secondhand smoke exposure, tobacco litter, high medical costs and the loss of people we love.

Some incentives offered by tobacco companies: coupons, slippers, darts and barbecue sauce.

The days of Marlboro Man billboards and the Joe Camel cartoon are long gone, but tobacco industry marketing is alive and well in Minnesota.

Betsy Brock

People who do not use tobacco likely do not understand the breadth and depth of tobacco marketing. Compared to an era when cigarettes were advertised on billboards and TV, it may seem that tobacco advertising is a tactic of the past.

However, the tobacco industry’s continued success depends on keeping current smokers addicted and hooking new, young users. To do that, they have created a whole world of tobacco advertising online and mailings that go directly to consumers.

$9.5 billion in marketing in 2013

According to the latest report on tobacco marketing from the Federal Trade Commission, in 2013 the tobacco industry spent $9.5 billion (that is $1 million per hour) to market cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. In Minnesota, the industry spends $135.5 million per year, or more than $370,000 per day, marketing tobacco.

Where is $1 million an hour going if many people are not seeing it? The vast majority of these dollars are spent on promotions for tobacco users designed to keep the price of tobacco low, such as in-store price discounting and buy-one-get-one-free offers.

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In addition, the industry sends coupons and other gifts to consumers through an approach called direct marketing. Once people subscribe to company mailing lists, the free stuff starts pouring in. Tobacco companies mail out birthday gifts, prizes and gift cards. Sunglasses, T-shirts, bottles of BBQ sauce and a desktop minifridge to cool down a can of soda are just a few examples. All of these items and interactions keep tobacco use and brand loyalty top of mind for consumers.

Alarmingly, the majority of these promotional materials are targeted toward young people. Common advertising campaign themes are music, night life, photography and adventure. The tobacco industry is clever – associating smoking with things that young people enjoy and think are cool doesn’t happen by accident.

Minnesota has come a long way in the fight to reduce tobacco’s harm. All workplaces, including bars and restaurants, are smoke-free; tobacco products are sold at high prices to discourage people from buying them; and cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul recently passed policies that restrict the sale of flavored tobacco products to adult-only tobacco shops.

Yet tobacco use remains the No. 1 preventable cause of death. Clearly tobacco industry marketing is successful.

Product harms us all

Some people might say that tobacco is a legal product, and the tobacco industry has a right to market its product just like any other business. But tobacco companies are not like any other business. The tobacco industry markets products that have no purpose. They market products that make people sick and often kill them. They aren’t working to make our lives better or communities stronger. They are promoting a product that harms us all through secondhand smoke exposure, tobacco litter, high medical costs and the loss of people we love. 

Tobacco advertising in all its forms should be a call to action to each of us to do our part to protect kids and help create a smoke-free generation.

Betsy Brock is the director of research for the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota. She has spent five years studying direct marketing done by tobacco companies.


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