The ingenious marketers with the tobacco companies, that is.
Actually, they never went away. They just quietly changed the way they do things, adjusting to increasing government restrictions and negative publicity with sometimes subtle but always clever new strategies to keep their current customers hooked on nicotine and to lure new, young customers into their fold.
Unless you’re in one of their target demographics, you may be oblivious to these marketing efforts. Have you ever met a “Cigarette Fairy” in a bar? Or heard of the “Welcome to the Brotherhood” campaign? Or seen a peach-, strawberry-, grape- or chocolate-flavored “little cigar”? Or played a video game that rewards you with imaginary cigarettes and that mocks health-warning labels?
These marketing efforts and more are described in a disturbing new report released Wednesday by ClearWay Minnesota, the nonprofit group that was funded by a small percentage of Minnesota’s 1998 tobacco settlement. Its mission is to “improve the health of Minnesotans by reducing the harm caused by tobacco.”
The report, “Unfiltered: A Revealing Look at Today’s Tobacco Industry,” is part of the organization’s new statewide campaign to shine a light on how the industry has continued to shapeshift — and thrive.
“We hope this is going to be a wake-up call for Minnesotans,” said David Willoughby, ClearWay Minnesota’s chief executive officer, in a phone interview on Wednesday.
Parents, health care professionals, community leaders, politicians — all of us — “need to realize that the tobacco industry continues to reinvent itself and sell an addictive product to millions of Americans,” he added.
Still leading cause of preventable death
Tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable death in Minnesota, Willoughby pointed out. Some 634,000 Minnesotans still smoke, and about 5,500 Minnesotans lose their lives to tobacco products each year. The annual tobacco-related health care costs to the state? About $2 billion, said Willoughby.
“Tobacco is one of the things that keeps raising our health-care costs,” he said, “and yet the industry still continues to go after people.”
Last year alone, the tobacco industry spent almost $200 million on marketing its products in the state. Much of that money is being spent on 18- to 24-year-olds, said Willoughby — and with apparent success.
Some 28 percent of Minnesotans in that age range smoke, compared to 17 percent of people aged 25 years and up.
It’s also the age group that has the greatest percentage of people getting hooked on smokeless tobacco.
You can read the full report (and post your comments) here.
Here are some of the highlights:
- In 2007, in an effort to reach more young women, R.J. Reynolds launched a new product, Camel No. 9s (reminiscent of Chanel No. 9 perfume — get it?). The marketing campaign had a kind of “Sex in the City” flair, with such slogans as “Light and Luscious” and “Now Available in Stiletto.” Nightclubs, including one in Minneapolis, held Camel No. 9 “launch parties,” with free gift bags.
- R.J. Reynolds also sends “Cigarette Fairies” — attractive and usually female individuals — into local bars to talk with young people about their tobacco preferences and to offer free samples or coupons. Here’s how one Minnesota “Cigarette Fairy” described her job: “I get paid to hand out cigarettes, go to free gigs and to smoke. Camel [is] clever about the smoking ban. We’re all over the place … all over America. It’s a sweet job.”
- With the actor who played the hunky Marlboro Man dead from lung cancer, the tobacco industry had to rethink its marketing approach to men. The idea that tobacco makes men strong and sexually attractive had to be retained, however. For a 2008 campaign — for Skoal smokeless tobacco — marketers teamed up with Playboy magazine and invited guys to vote for one of a dozen Skoal models. The Skoal slogan: “Welcome to the Brotherhood.”
- Free cigarettes and other tobacco products continue to be distributed to our soldiers stationed overseas. It’s a highly effective marketing strategy. As one serviceman stationed in Iraq wrote to a tobacco company: “Thanks again for sending us all the products. The unit was really impressed that you would do that for us. I know you will definitely have some loyal customers from our unit once we get back to the States.”
- The tobacco industry is eager to reach communities of color because the smoking rate is higher and the quitting rate is lower in those communities. ClearWay Minnesota reports that a 2007 study found 2.6 times more tobacco ads in neighborhoods with a majority of African Americans than in other neighborhoods.
- Individuals in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) population are 40 to 70 percent more likely to smoke than non-GLBT people. Not only does the tobacco industry target this population with sexually ambiguous ads, it also donates heavily to events and organizations (like HIV/AIDS-related charities) that it thinks will engender good will (and brand loyalty) from the GLBT community.
- Although the tobacco industry claims that it stopped paying to place its products in movies back in the 1980s, an astonishing number of youth-rated films feature smoking. In fact, a study by the National Cancer Institute found that as late as 2002, 74 percent of all movies depicted smoking (a greater percentage of films than in 1950). Another study found that there was more smoking going on in G, PG, and PG-13 movies that year than in adult-rated ones. The ClearWay Minnesota report lists some of the kid-oriented movies from 2000 to 2009 that featured smoking. They include “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Curious George,” “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Scooby Doo 2: Monsters,” “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,” and “Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.”
- Of course, video games rack in more money than movies — a fact not lost on the tobacco industry. Smoking is featured in many video games, but the game “The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay” may be the most blatant in its tobacco promotion. Each pack of cigarettes you “win” in the game offers bonus materials. And the game makes fun of the warning labels on the packs. Yes, the game is rated “Mature” (for people 17 and up), but, let’s face it, younger teens also play it.
- The tobacco industry has shifted some of its marketing to new smokeless products, many of which are candy- or fruit-flavored to make them more palatable. Flavored cigarettes were banned last year, but to get around that restriction, the industry is marketing very thin flavored cigars. (The difference between cigars and cigarettes is that cigars must have tobacco incorporated into its outer “paper.”) These “little cigars,” which come in chocolate, strawberry peach, grape, rum and tequila flavors, are packaged like candy — and are much cheaper than cigarettes.
- In what can only be described as a truly cynical ploy to look like a “good citizen,” tobacco companies donate hundreds of millions of dollars each year to youth organizations, including the National 4-H Council, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Forum for Youth Investment, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. What kind of mixed message is that?