A well-documented study in the latest edition of The New England Journal of Medicine indicates tobacco companies are violating an agreement not to market cigarettes to young people. This apparently irresponsible breach demands an explanation and a thorough review of company practices.
In 1998, the four biggest tobacco firms agreed with the US government and the attorneys general of 46 states not to "take any action, directly or indirectly, to target youth...," specifically, children younger than 18. But this new study, which surveyed ads in 38 national magazines, lays out a wide array of evidence that the agreement was not kept. In fact, it says 82 percent of middle and high schoolers were reached through tobacco-company advertising last year. Journal researchers found a significant jump in advertising in youth-appeal magazines like Rolling Stone and People shortly after the agreement - to the tune of $127 million.
Calling the tobacco companies' efforts a "total failure," the researchers say probably even more young people were exposed to cigarette advertising than their survey indicates, since it didn't include some other magazines popular with teens, like Spin or Entertainment Weekly, because readership statistics were not consistently available.
So far, the companies have limply defended themselves by ticking off the places where their ads no longer appear - such as taxis, buses, and billboards. R.J. Reynolds, for one, says it has a right to "communicate with adults" in any magazine that has a majority of adult readers.
The study points out that much existing research strongly suggests a link between exposure to tobacco advertising and picking up a smoking habit. According to the American Lung Association, some 4,800 pre-teens and teenagers start smoking each day in the US.
The National Conference of State Legislatures recently announced that a mere 5 percent of the tobacco settlement money given to states is being used to prevent smoking. Given industry advertising practices, and the statistics on youth smoking, that's unacceptable.
It's clearly time for bolder action to get cigarettes out of the fingers of the nation's youth. The companies ought to be held to their agreements. And states should use more of their tobacco windfalls to counter the tobacco ad blitz.