In many ways, tobacco is a straightforward but deadly business.
Teenagers are enticed into smoking because it seems an adult thing to
do. It seems this way because adults do it and because the ideas of
sophistication, elegance, cool, machismo and excitement are
remorselessly promoted and reinforced through cigarette marketing. After
the teenage glamour years of smoking, nicotine addiction, the ultimate
marketing idea, takes over.
From then on the decision to quit is increasingly difficult, and the
revenue stream ever more secure.
Given this view, ASH was particularly struck by the announcement of the
Co-operative Wholesale Society that it has removed alcopops from its
stores because they are promoted to teenagers. The question is: if it is
right to ban alcopops, how can it be wrong to ban cigarettes?
Bill Shannon of the CWS starts his article in Marketing (June 19) with
the question, ’What would you do, as a retail buyer, if someone
presented you with launch plans for a new ’starter’ cigarette, aimed at
the teenage market?’. There is no doubt that if teenagers did not start
smoking, then the market would rapidly decline. Just to stand still the
tobacco industry needs 300 new smokers per day to replace those that
die. Most adult smokers start before they are 18 years old, and 28% of
15-year-olds smoke regularly.
It would be strange indeed if tobacco marketing somehow managed to avoid
attracting the crucial feedstock of new teenage smokers.
In fact, it is quite obvious that the imagery associated with tobacco is
designed to portray smoking as an adult and exciting activity, and hence
smoking is an important ’rite of passage’. Nowhere is this more apparent
than in the massive sponsorship of Formula 1 and other ’lad’ sports.
A new survey by the Health Education Authority found that over half of
11- to 15-year-olds believe they have seen TV ads for cigarettes in the
past six months - even though they have not appeared since 1965.
The clue to this paradox is that more than half of the youngsters can
link at least one televised sport with cigarettes.
The HEA concluded that: ’Young people are very much aware of cigarette
promotion. They see it everywhere they go: in the street, in magazines
and newspapers, and in shops.’
On a broader level there is still the question of selling a product to
anyone, teenager or adult, that is known to kill half its regular users,
ensnare them in nicotine addiction and is responsible for 120,000 deaths
per year in the UK. There is no consumer product that comes close in its
toll of misery and death.
Given the decisive action taken over any food or drugs found to be even
a fraction as dangerous as this, it is remarkable that tobacco is still
on the shelves anywhere. Remember benzene in Perrier? Remember BSE?
The CWS has taken a bold step with alcopops, and in doing so it risks
the likes of ASH noisily demanding that it goes the extra mile. In fact,
CWS has our great respect as a pioneer of ethical business. If anyone
takes the logical next step and bans cigarettes, it is likely to be the
Co-op. But for all retailers, it is time to examine, or find, the
- An estimated 120,000 people in the UK die prematurely from
smoking-related diseases each year
- UK cigarette sales have fallen from around 125 billion in 1975 to 80
billion in 1995
- 40% of 16- to 34-year-olds smoke compared with 26% of over 55s.
- In 1994, children aged 11 to 16 are estimated to have spent pounds
135m on cigarettes
- One-third of young smokers are trying to give up, slightly more than
in any other age group
- Four out of ten smokers want the age limit for tobacco sales to rise
Sources: NOP and industry estimates