German researchers examined more than 1,300 nonsmokers between the ages of 10 to 15, monitoring their exposure to tobacco advertisements in conjunction with their smoking behavior for 30 months. At the end of the 30 months, a third of the participants had tried smoking cigarettes. And the teens who had seen the most tobacco ads — between 11 to 55 — were about twice as likely to become regular smokers compared to the participants who saw the fewest ads during the 30 month period.
The World Health Organization has advocated a total ban on tobacco advertisements, pointing out that research has demonstrated eliminating this type of marketing helps decrease the demand for tobacco products. According to researchers from the Institute for Therapy and Health Research in Kiel, the new study’s findings bolster the WHO’s position. “Data from this study support this measure, because only exposure to tobacco advertisements predicted smoking initiation, which cannot be attributed to a general receptiveness to marketing,” they wrote in a journal news release.
In the 1950s and 60s, Big Tobacco companies in the United States used aggressive advertising tactics on billboards, magazine covers, television, and radio to get increasing numbers of Americans hooked on cigarettes. Last year, a federal court ruled that tobacco companies “deliberately deceived the Americans public” about the dangers of smoking in their marketing materials during that time period. Now, it’s illegal to advertise tobacco products — although some products, like e-cigarettes, are able to exploit a loophole in that regulation — and teens smoking rates have dropped to a record low. But that’s not the case in every country. WHO estimates that only 6 percent of the total global population was “fully protected from exposure to the tobacco industry advertising, promotion and sponsorship tactics” in 2010.
Here in the U.S., other big corporations have adopted some of Big Tobacco’s old marketing tactics to advertise their products to kids. Public health advocates warn that the food and beverage corporations who push their unhealthy products on youth are the next bad actors that will need additional regulation. But big companies typically rely on a “personal responsibility” argument to make the case that it’s consumers’ job to make their own decisions about whether to buy an unhealthy product.