Alice James: Tackling tobacco temptation—why we need to target children

alice_jamesThe most effective way we can reduce the global burden of smoking is to target young people. During the debate on standardised packaging of tobacco products, an initiative which has for now been stalled by the government, MP Bob Blackman stressed that, “Two thirds of current smokers began under the age of 18” and that once “hooked” it becomes “very difficult to give up.”

Governments need to take extra measures to make tobacco products more difficult for children to purchase. It appears some are making a start: New York City councillors recently voted to increase the legal age for buying cigarettes from 18 to 21 as well as backing the introduction of a $10.50 minimum price for a pack of cigarettes. Making the legal smoking age equal to the legal drinking age might accentuate the effect of this tobacco control measure, as previously teenagers might have taken up smoking because of the ease of buying cigarettes compared with the ease of purchasing alcohol. The more governments can do to prevent smoking becoming habitual during adolescence, the less likely the individual is to embark on a lifetime trajectory of smoking-related ill health.

Greater efforts also need to be made to make cigarettes less appealing to children. A recent study found that “glitzy and glamorous” cigarette packaging made 11-16 year olds more susceptible to smoking. “Because it’s skinny you feel that you’re not doing as much damage,” said one teenager—reflecting the opinion held by many participants that the slim design cigarettes contained less tobacco, when in fact they are sometimes more harmful. Tobacco companies have often chosen to focus on portraying cigarette use as a gateway to a certain lifestyle, or to attributes such as sex appeal or weight loss rather than trying to sell the cigarette itself. This marketing technique has proven effective among young women—particularly those living in developing countries who may buy cigarettes to get a taste of a glamorous or independent woman’s lifestyle. The Australian government pioneered tobacco plain packaging by enforcing the replacement of catchy designs and brand names with shocking images of rotting teeth and contact information for smoking cessation services. Early indications suggest that these have been effective, with many smokers believing that the “taste of the cigarette” was “worse” as a result of the unappealing design and a greatly increased number of calls to smoking cessation services. It is now time for the rest of the world to follow suit.

It could be argued that imposing tighter tobacco control measures impinges upon people’s freedom of choice. I’m not suggesting that smoking be banned, but targeting young or vulnerable individuals with clever advertising is harmful and hugely irresponsible. Some primary schools in China are sponsored by tobacco companies. If governments are allowing children as young as five to walk around with tobacco brand names etched into their school jumpers then any negative messages they send to the public about smoking are made pretty well redundant. Tighter restrictions need to be placed on tobacco companies globally, including enforcement of plain packaging and advertising constraints.

Competing interests: I declare that that I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and I have no relevant interests to declare

Alice James is a medical student at Bristol University. She is currently doing an intercalated degree in global health.

  • Austin Runtschke

    As a teenager myself, I see kids smoking in school from time to time. I am proud to say that I have never smoked and intend on never doing so. Like Miss James mentioned in her article, everyday I see commercials and advertisements targeted towards my age group that tries to scare us away from using or buying tobacco or any other drug. Personally I believe that this tactic works and should be continued. Obviously companies are seeing positive results from these campaigns and I believe that they must continue to strive to a healthier society. Its everyone’s right to be free but tobacco is putting chains and cuffs around kids my age and somebody has to be there to help us and guide us to a safer path.

    If you haven’t realized by now, I obviously disagree with Miss James. She finds these attempts and tactics to a healthier society “harmful” and “hugely irresponsible”. But in what way is the voluntary help of complete strangers whose purpose is devoted to saving the lives of people by starting at a young age “hugely irresponsible” let alone “harmful”? There is no denying that the tobacco companies are the ones who are being irresponsible. They flaunt their drugs in the faces of irrational teenagers who feel like they need to take these drugs to fulfill some higher purpose. These tobacco companies could care less about schools in China. They are in the business for the money and are willing to do what ever it takes to make money. Now that seems more irresponsible to me than anything else.

  • Alice

    Mr Runtschke, thank you for your comment. I just wanted to clarify that it is the advertising campaigns by Transnational Tobacco Corporations promoting their products which I find ‘harmful’ and ‘hugely irresponsible’ and not the anti-smoking campaigns!

  • J.Humberto Sturione

    I deeply believe that you are right, but we have another issue. Here in Chile for example, the prevention campaigns are not very good. It changes nothing if you just show a sick elder or a guy with a little hole in the neck. You have to teach, you have to mention that tobacco is killing 6 million people a year all over the world, that tobacco is killing 40 chileans each day and that the two principal killers in the world (cardiovascular disease and cancer) are directly related to tobacco and other risk factors. While our campaigns don’t address that, we’ll keep losing the battle and hitting less powerful than tobacco industry.