No ifs, ands or butts

The tobacco industry’s ongoing targeting of teens got its biggest boost in years from the movie Titanic. Sure, it was historically accurate to show Leonardo’s character puffing away, and Kate Winslet using cigarettes to defy her mother. The message to teenagers? Smoking equals freedom – a windfall for tobacco marketing execs.

Today, April 14, is the fourth annual Kick Butts Day, organized by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Across the country, kids who "hate being lied to," as the Children Opposed to Smoking Tobacco group (COST) puts it, will lobby legislators or go undercover to expose illegal sales to minors.

At a Dearborn middle school, they’ll take antismoking stickers to doctors’ offices and slap them on magazines. A Salvation Army after-school group in Westland will create a "say no" mural. In St. Clair Shores, high school students are making antismoking videos.

Twelve-year-old Matthew Goulet of Bryant Middle School in Dearborn is one of the leaders of Kick Butts Day.

"There’s a lot of kids doing it, and we want to stop the tobacco companies from convincing kids to smoke," he says. "There’s messages out there telling them it’s cool or it makes you look sexy.

"Like Joe Camel – he has a cigarette and sunglasses and he’s driving, like, a Mustang, and kids might think that’s cool."

Might, indeed. Every day, 6,000 Americans under the age of 18 take a puff for the first time, and 3,000 more become daily smokers, well on their way to addiction. That’s more than a million new smokers a year.

It’s no accident. A big part of the reason teenagers smoke is that tobacco companies aggressively market to kids. They have to: Since practically no one over 18 takes up smoking (almost 90 percent of adult smokers began at or before that age), teenagers are cigarette companies’ do-or-die target audience.

It appears to be working. While adult smoking has generally been decreasing, over the past 10 years the number of kids under 18 who become daily smokers each year has increased by more than half a million – more than 70 percent. Thirty-six percent of high school students smoke (vs. 25 percent of adults), and 16 percent of high school boys use smokeless tobacco. More than 250 million packs of cigarettes are illegally sold to kids each year.

If current trends continue, almost a third of these underage smokers – 5 million people – will ultimately die from tobacco-related causes. And a report published last week in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showed that kids who start smoking before they turn 20 do themselves irreversible genetic damage – and the younger they start, the greater the damage.

Of course, kids aren’t thinking about "ultimately," which tobacco companies know and exploit.

Antismoking groups are pushing for more restrictions on tobacco advertising, because in the teen market, advertising works. One study showed teens to be three times as sensitive as adults to cigarette advertising, and most of the nonsmokers in another survey could name a "favorite" ad.

Look at the numbers: Eighty-six percent of kids who smoke prefer Marlboro, Camel and Newport – the three most-advertised brands – while only about a third of adult smokers choose those three.

Marlboro, the biggest advertiser, takes almost 60 percent of the youth market, but only a quarter of the adult market. Between 1989 and 1993, when Camel increased its spending on the Joe Camel campaign from $27 million to $43 million, Camel’s share among kids increased by more than 50 percent.

Researchers documented a fast and unprecedented increase in the rate at which adolescent girls started smoking in the late 1960s, coinciding with the launch of women’s cigarette brands such as Virginia Slims. Jacquie Steingold, an officer of the Detroit chapter of National Organization for Women (NOW), remembers, "I started smoking my senior year of high school, but I switched to Virginia Slims when I was in college. You’d save up your packets and get this free Virginia Slims calendar."

National NOW has produced a 22-minute video, "Redefining Liberation," about how ads target girls and women. The tobacco companies’ message? Smoking keeps you thin. The video reproduces one Virginia Slims ad that doesn’t even bother to be subliminal. A girl says, "If I ran the world, calories wouldn’t count." She eyes some cookies – and picks a cigarette instead.

Likewise, the makers of Misty cigarettes use the slogan "Slim and Sassy" – what two qualities appeal more to teenage girls?

Some middle school kids in New Jersey have developed a sophisticated analysis of cigarette ads. On the COST Web site, they reproduce an ad for Kool, which shows a girl seated behind a guy on a motorcycle. Surely the guy is cool; "after all, he’s on a motorcycle … But notice how his picture is faded out. Doesn’t that signal he’s on the ‘way out’ as far as this girl is concerned? Why is she ignoring him? The people at Brown and Williamson would like you to believe it’s because he doesn’t smoke. Notice that her eyes are on the guy with the cigarette."

Just as bad is "Johnny," RJR’s Power Ranger-style replacement for Joe Camel. According to COST, he sends the message that "cool people smoke, and they hate people who get uptight about it."

Eric Lindblom of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says a multifaceted approach is needed to keep kids from picking up the habit.

"It’s much more complicated than telling them ‘smoking will kill you,’" he acknowledges. "You need to tell them the immediate health and cosmetic and social impacts."

Higher cigarette prices and smoke free workplaces will also help, he adds.

There’s still the problem, of course, that the more adults come down on smoking, the more some kids will want to do it. Says the Campaign’s Jan Vertefeuille, "That’s why with Kick Butts Day we’re trying to encourage kids to take the leadership role. They don’t listen to parents and teachers telling them this is bad. The idea of Kick Butts Day is to get peer pressure moving in the opposite direction. It makes kids feel like they can say, ‘This is socially unacceptable.’"

For more facts and statistics, check the CDC’s tobacco information and prevention page,
Contact Children Opposed to Smoking Tobacco, Mary E. Volz School, 509 W. 3rd Ave., Runnemede, NJ 08078. Visit

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids can be reached at 800-284-KIDS or at

To order a copy of "Redefining Liberation," call NOW at 202-331- 0066 or visit

About The Author

Jane Slaughter

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Monthly Review, and In These Times.
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