Armed with data showing that advertising has a powerful effect on adolescents' decision to smoke, the American Academy of Pediatrics yesterday called on the government to ban all tobacco advertising accessible to children and to limit kids' exposure to smoking in movies and television shows. In a policy statement (.pdf) published online in the journal Pediatrics, the authors wrote:
Advertising makes smoking and drinking seem like normative activities and may function as a “superpeer” in subtly pressuring teenagers to experiment. Research has revealed that advertising may be responsible for up to 30% of adolescent tobacco and alcohol use.
When I heard about the proposal, I phoned Seth Ammerman, MD, a Lucile Packard Children's Hospital physician whose research focuses on teen smoking prevention and cessation. Not surprisingly, he's supportive of such a ban. "There’s no doubt that tobacco companies target youths in their advertising and their products," he told me. "And they have to do so to replace all those smokers who died from using their products."
Ammerman said there's plenty of evidence that tobacco advertising is effective: The cigarette brands that are most popular with teens are the most heavily advertised ones. And he said the messages contained in ads are ones that naturally appeal to young people. Ads marketed towards males, for example, depict adventurous and daring characters that seem like "cool guys."
"Even though the companies claim the ads are geared towards adults, they know what’s going to appeal to children and youth," he said.
Ammerman also talked with me about the effectiveness of other forms of advertising: It's been shown, he said, that product placement in movies is one of the top reasons why kids start smoking. "Even if the character is a 'bad guy,' that image [of him smoking] can be appealing to kids," he explained. "They show the smoke in a way that looks very pretty and sexy."
Give the financial (and lobbying) power of the tobacco industry, I wondered how realistic it would be for the government to curb advertising. Ammerman pointed out that people are increasingly concerned about the health effects of second-hand and third-hand smoke ("It's becoming less and less cool to smoke," he said), and it's likely that people will support future restrictions on the industry. "We've already made a lot of progress," he said. "It's just going to take a lot of time."
Previously: Cigarette ads turn teens on to smoking, Europe launches campaign to get young smokers to stop and Massachusetts stores may be required to post graphic anti-smoking signs
Photo by Beautiful Insanity Photography