Why Kids Are Still Smoking

Despite restrictions, tobacco companies have managed to find ways to market their products to youth.

One in four high school seniors smoke. Anti-tobacco organizations blame tobacco companies for continuing to market to teenagers and young adults. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user David Salafia.

“Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer.”

That quote, from a 1981 Philip Morris document, has been widely used as an example of tobacco companies’ marketing tactics geared toward youths. And while the US has come a long way since then where smoking is concerned, recent reports from the US Surgeon General and anti-tobacco campaigns show that teens and young adults are still taking up the habit.

Every day 3,800 kids under the age of 18 try their first cigarette. One in four high school seniors is a smoker, as is one in three adults under the age of 26. Worldwide, tobacco use killed 6 million people last year and was the top cause of death in China, according to the American Cancer Society and World Lung Foundation

The tobacco industry’s $10 billion spent per year on marketing and advertisements is to thank for these startling statistics, says Vince Willmore, vice president for communications at Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, whose organization is celebrating is 17th annual Kick Butts campaign today. “More than 3.6 million middle and high school students still smoke,” he says. “Tobacco companies spend . . . more than $1 million every day on marketing–and much of that marketing appeals to kids.” 

While various laws have barred cigarette ads from appearing on television and radio and in print publications, Willmore says tobacco companies are “very adept circumventing restrictions on marketing” to reach young adults through other means. So while tobacco use decreased among young people from 1997 to 2003, numbers have since stalled.

Much of tobacco marketing is found in convenience stores, with advertisements placed next to candy, soda, and snacks, the report read. The US Surgeon General’s report on youth and tobacco stated that 70 percent of adolescents shop in these types of stores at least once a week. “It’s essentially portraying tobacco products as normal and appealing as all other products that kids buy,” Willmore explains. 

In addition, marketing for smokeless tobacco products, also known as dipping or chewing tobacco, has increased by 277 percent since 1998. The Tobacco-Free Kids report states that these smokeless products are colorfully packaged and candy-flavored. Other forms, including melt-in-your mouth tobacco by Orbs, have become popular alternatives to smoking, despite recent scrutiny from the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). 

“In the US, tobacco kills 443,000 Americans every year,” Willmore says. “It also costs the nation about $100 billion a year in health care. So it’s not only a serious health problem but it’s also a financial drain.”

To read the full report, click here