Cigarettes for Children! Public policy issues around smoking

“Old Joe Camel cartoon advertisements are far more successful at marketing Camel cigarettes to children than to adults. This finding is consistent with tobacco industry documents that indicate that a major function of tobacco advertising is to promote and maintain tobacco addiction among children.”

This is a conclusion of a medical abstract published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) in 1992. The preceding opening of previously confidential documents has revealed the targeted marketing and advertising policy of the tobacco businesses to recruit new smokers as children. How else would the cartoon character indeed be explained?

I had my first cigarette at an age of five or six, sharing it in the house yard with other boys. It was an adventure, we pretended to be characters from the Indiana Jones movies and smoking made us all feel grown ups, heroes, the ones who get to be on the TV. Luckily, it never became an addiction and I have been smoke-free for whole of my life since trying. But that is no the story of everyone. According to the Harvard professor Allan Brandt who wrote an award winning and absolutely fascinating book “The Cigarette Century”, ‘today tobacco still kills more than 435 000 US citizens each year (more than HIV, alcohol, illicit drugs, suicide, and homicide combined).” This is three 747s crashing every day with no survivors for the whole year, this is how many smoking kills. And the global figures are much worse than the American figures.

Smoking represents a miracle in terms of a marketing success, the close and exploited ties with human psychology and advertising. It however also represents the victory of good policies to stop people from smoking. The US adult generation of smokers now is half of that it was in the 1970s. As one of my American colleagues said “it is not cool anymore to smoke”. The policy change of ‘un-cooling’ smoking is remarkable. However, so is the rise of smoking in the developing world. How much pity I feel when I discover that good friends of mine now work for the American-British Tobacco or Philip Morris. Interestingly, these were among the first investors in Azerbaijan, the country where I was born and raised. I remember on one of my first flight abroad from Baku to Zurich in 1999, I was flying in a plane next to a young and attractive lady in her 20s who worked for Philip Morris. I remember she complained about having to fly a lot, but hey, in those years not so many Azeris enjoyed flying around the world! The tobacco business knew how to target the smart and the capable of the new emerging markets, such as the former Soviet Republics.

In the new posts that will follow I want to explore an issue of smoking as a symbol of what the Western society and popular culture represent, and through the demise of smoking, to understand how public policy change may happen despite strong lobbying. With exploration of the rise of smoking in developing countries, we will see the dangers of modernization, uncritical marketing and corrupt systems of public health protection.

Ultimately, the human prudence will prevail and smoking will become history both in developed and developing countries. But how many more people will die before that unnecessarily? The current estimate is that in the course of the twenty-first century about 1 billion people will die from the tobacco related diseases. The gravity of an issue demands serious action. And policy scientists can help here.

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