Taking a closer look at teen smoking trends; what a long, frustrating trip it’s been

Teen smoking rate

Yesterday, I posted about a Washington Post article examining the dropping smoking rate in the U.S. since 1970. As part of that article was information about teen smoking. I thought it was worth exploring in a second post.

Cutting the teen smoking rate is critical to stamping out smoking because virtually no one takes up smoking past the age of 21. Most smokers started when they were 16, 15, 14 years old. If a kid can make it to 19 without taking up smoking, he or she will likely never take up smoking.

It’s been a very frustrating battle to cut back on teen smoking, with both Big Tobacco and Hollywood conspiring to fight anti-tobacco efforts. However, the teen smoking rate has absolutely collapsed in the past couple of years; unfortunately, not necessarily for a good reason.

Teen smoking rate2

 

I made a second graph using my Excel skillz showing the teen smoking rate, then added some explanations for what has been going on for the past 25 years.

The teen smoking rate was incredibly high in the 1990s, peaking in 1997. What is considered the biggest culprit for this? Joe Camel. Joe Camel was introduced by RJ Reynolds in 1987 and was a disgustingly brazen attempt by RJR to lure teens into the smoking world with an aggressive campaign showing Joe Camel as cool, suave, sophisticated, hip, etc. Joe Camel was portrayed as an Air Force pilot, a motorcyclist, a James Bond character, etc.

motorcycle

RJ Reynolds never copped to this of course, but internal documents released by the various court cases confirmed it. According to these documents:

  1. A) In 1974, RJR’s Vice-President of Marketing gave a presentation that “young adult market . . . represent[s] tomorrow’s cigarette business. As this 14-24 age group matures, they will account for a key share of the total cigarette volume – for at least the next 25 years.”
  2. B) A 1974 memo by the R. J. Reynolds Research Department points out that capturing the young adult market is vital because “virtually all [smokers] start by the age of 25” and “most smokers begin smoking regularly and select a usual brand at or before the age of 18.

So they were absolutely going after kids. Joe Camel was incredibly successful. The teen smoking rate in 1991 was 27.5 percent and by 1997, it had grown to 36.4 percent (even as the adult smoking rate was plummeting during this time).

Then came along the Master Settlement Agreement in 1998. The MSA is much-maligned for not doing as much as it could have to stamp out smoking, but it did one extremely important thing — it banned Joe Camel. RJ Reynolds and other tobacco companies were no longer allowed to use cartoon characters (Many years ago, Kool used a cartoon penguin to market its brand) in their advertisements. One of the other things the MSA banned was the product placement of tobacco products in Hollywood movies.

wolverinecigar
No more on-screen smoking for you, Wolverine

This had a remarkable effect on reducing teen smoking, as did the billions of MSA funds spent on tobacco education programs in schools. The teen smoking rate dropped down to 21.9 percent by 2003.

Then a very weird thing took place. The teen smoking rate actually went UP in 2005, to 23.0 percent. What happened? One very big thing. States began to figure out they weren’t actually required to spend MSA funds on tobacco education and cessation programs and they started diverting the MSA payouts to their general funds simply balancing their budgets. Funding for anti-tobacco programs dried up. And the teen smoking rate rose. It was an incredibly frustrating period.

The other bizarre thing that happened is that even though placement of tobacco products was specifically banned in Hollywood movies, the rate of smoking scenes in PG-13, PG and even G movies actually went UP … even though Hollywood supposedly wasn’t collecting a nickel from Big Tobacco. They were literally giving Big Tobacco free advertising because Hollywood was stuck in this insane notion that smoking was cool and hip.

When it became apparent that Hollywood studios were part of the problem, a movement began to require an R rating for smoking scenes. Finally in 2008, the MPAA agreed to consider R ratings for smoking scenes. The policy isn’t perfect, but I think it’s actually worked, because movie studios don’t like R ratings and they just don’t want to bother butting heads with the MPAA over these ratings when they plan well ahead of time for movies to be rated PG-13. So, even well-known smoking Marvel characters such as Wolverine and Nick Fury were forced to stop chomping their cigars.

So, that teen smoking rate started dropping — to 18 percent in 2011 and 15.7 percent in 2013. Partly because of the lack of smoking in movies marketed to teens, I believe and partly because of the great work done by the Truth Campaign, a non-governmental, non-profit organization that’s been around since the late 1990s fighting teen smoking with a series of really good anti-smoking ads on TV and YouTube. Truth was originally funded with MSA funds, but that source has dried up and is now funded by donations and savvy investments.

girl e-cigarette
Kids using e-cigs … it makes me crazy.

The recent rapid drop in teen smoking is great, except for one caveat. The biggest reason for the recent collapse in the teen smoking rate (now, down below 10 percent) is the rapid rise in the popularity of e-cigs. The teen use of e-cigs tripled from 2013 to 2014 and in fact now, many more teens vape (13.4 percent in 2014 and I guarantee that number is higher now) than smoke. This is a mixed bag. On the one hand, teens aren’t smoking. But, on the other hand, they are getting addicted to nicotine. No nicotine addiction at all is the ideal. And studies have shown that a higher percentage of kids who vape eventually take up smoking than those who don’t vape. The Food and Drug Administration plans to ban e-cig sales to minors, but they need to crack down on e-cig marketing to teens (e-cig companies are using the EXACT same marketing techniques as Big Tobacco did 20 years ago to appeal to teens) and online sales of e-cig products.

 

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