Preventing youth smoking has long been an urgent topic for public health authorities, since most smokers start by the age of 18. But the policies that have emerged from that concern have been questionable. For example, many cities have enacted laws making it illegal for kids to buy or possess tobacco. Under these laws, kids caught smoking are given tickets and sentenced to tobacco education classes. While the information in these classes is unquestionably important, kids simply are not receptive to it when they are forced to attend as punishment. Worse, youth possession laws reinforce the idea that cigarettes are an "adults only" product, which just enhances the attractiveness of smoking to youth. Philip Morris has long understood this dynamic, as evidenced by its 1991 Archetype Project, in which it sought to exploit youngsters' longings for adulthood and tendencies toward rebelliousness to make them want cigarettes more. The person PM appointed to head up its Archetype Project, Carolyn C. Levy, Ph.D., was a specialist in smoker psychology, nicotine addiction and marketing, and was especially knowledgeable about marketing the Marlboro brand. Levy wrote in a 1981 PM report,
Today's teenager is tomorrow's potential regular customer...The smoking patterns of teenagers are particularly important to Philip Morris.
Dr. Levy was the person PM assigned to head its "Youth Smoking Prevention" department when it was first formed in 1999.
Youth Smoking "Prevention"
Another problem with the current approach to the youth smoking problem is that policymakers see the issue backwards. The problem is not kids' access to tobacco, it's the tobacco industry's access to kids. To cover their tracks on the youth smoking issue, the major tobacco companies have started in-house "youth smoking prevention" programs they advertise heavily on TV and through other media. As we have seen from the experience with PM's Dr. Levy, these YSP departments are staffed not with public health experts, but with marketing experts from the tobacco companies themselves. And the companies measure the success of their YSP programs not in how many fewer youth actually smoke, but in shifts in how favorably the public views the company.
Cigarette company "youth smoking prevention programs" actually detract from real efforts to minimize youth smoking. Why? Because in truth, these programs assure that tobacco companies will continue to enjoy free access to kids for gathering important marketing information. If you need proof of this, just look at the "Research" section of Philip Morris' "youth smoking prevention" (YSP) Web page. It says right up front that PM conducts a "Teenage Attitudes and Behavior Study" in which the company directly questions 20,000 kids ages 11-17 annually through telephone surveys. This "research" survey provides PM with broad access to large numbers of kids to ask them about their smoking behaviors, social proclivities, brand preferences and attitudes -- all information valuable to marketing efforts. The only difference is that the company does it out in the open now, under the guise of research for its "youth smoking prevention" programs. To make matters worse, PM compiles "dissemination plans" for offering the data they collect on youth to academic institutions for use in university research studies. Offering the data to academics gives PM a foot in the door to prestigious universities around the country, where they work to recruit partnerships with distinguished, and sometimes unwitting, members of academia. This strategy aligns the company with respected institutions of higher education and research, which boosts the company's image and reinforces PM's political influence. One only needs to read tobacco industry documents to see that for all the reasons above, cigarette companies must not be trusted to engage in "youth smoking prevention" efforts.
The best way to reduce youth smoking is to treat tobacco companies as what they are: spreaders of disease. Policy makers need to treat smoking not as a finger-wagging "no-no" for children, but as if it is equally harmful to everyone, without regard to age. Kids will reach the right conclusions about smoking when adults treat is as though it is truly dangerous across the board, and not with a "wink," saying it is something they can do when they get older.