Big Tobacco makes play for youngster

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By Kevin Ritchie

Tobacco companies have long said they’re not interested in enticing people to smoke. They insist they don’t even bat an eye when smokers kick the habit.

But documents unsealed as part of a landmark legal settlement between U.S. cigarette makers in the State of Minnesota tell a different story, one that features intense efforts on the part of tobacco companies to attract young smokers.

“If you want evidence they were trying to figure out what it was that made kids want to smoke, you found it,” says Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada.

Callard was among the first to view the documents at the repository of British America Tobacco in England in March of 1999. BAT holds a controlling interest in Canadian-based IMASCO/Imperial Tobacco, which produces brands such as du Maurier and Player’s Light. Its repository contains about six million tobacco-industry documents dating from the 1970s to the 1990s.

So far, Health Canada has released a small fraction of what is available for public viewing in England. The documents show Imperial Tobacco conducted market research on children as young as nine to determine at what age kids began to experiment with cigarettes, and at what age they take up the habit.

“Little by little…Canadians are coming to understand the agenda of the tobacco industry to get new customers by focusing on young people,” federal Health Minister Allan Rock told the House of Commons during a question period in May. This fell on the same day Health Canada released a second batch of documents from BAT’s repository.

Critics of the tobacco industry who have reviewed the papers say they show Imperial, the country’s largest tobacco manufacturer, created Player’s Light in 1978 as the “brand for modern young smokers” and “young people starting the smoking habit.” The documents also show the company came up with a marketing plan in the 1980s that targeted youngsters between the ages of 12 and 17.

“We’ve explained [this] countless times before,” says Imperial spokesperson Michel Descoteaux. “This was not research that was done for the purpose of trying to determine if or how we could attract anybody into smoking. Not at all.”

Descoteaux says imperial undertook the research because in 1977 its share of the market was just 37 per cent. He says the tobacco manufacturer needed to assess the future of the market to compete with other companies for smokers—not starters.

The Imperial spokesperson notes that the last time the company conducted research on youths was in 1982. This June, Imperial and tobacco manufacturer JTI-Macdonald said they supported a Senate-sponsored bill that would require their companies to pay into a fund that would try to prevent youths from smoking.

Today, Imperial sits atop of the market with a 70 per cent share. It’s also the brand most new smokers turn to. Moreover, the percentage of young smokers has risen in recent years after several years of decline.

Rick Pollay, a marketing professor at the University of British Columbia, says Imperial’s success can be traced to the introduction of Player’s Light.

“There’s an old saying that the secret to success in Malboro counry is to correal them while they’re young and brand them while they’re young,” he says.

Pollay has reviewed tobacco papers and testified at numerous trials in the United States involving the tobacco industry over the past 13 years. The Canadian government has tapped him as an expert witness in the industry’s constitutional challenge of the Tobacco Act, which will phase out sponsorship of events by cigarette makers over the next three years starting Sunday.

Under the new restrictions, tobacco companies will only be allowed to advertise sponsorships through direct mail, on site at an event, in publications that have an adult readership of at least 85 per cent, and in legal-age venues.

But Imperial Descoteaux says advertising is just element of the company’s success. Packaging, taste and image are also key. “[People] want to smoke a product they perceive as modern, up-to-date, contemporary, popular.”

As for Player’s, Pollay argues sponsorship ads have helped the company shape its image. He says ads for CART racing encourage youngsters to light up by tapping into their desire to be heroes. “Sponsorship of motor racing is a way of conveying, ‘Go ahead and take a risk. Risk-takers get really rewarded. The heroes are the risktakers.’”

Callard of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada says the best way to counter Imperial’s marketing success is to keep the cost of cigarettes high, eliminate promotion, and restrict smoking in public places.

In California, Pollay says television commercials show youngsters how tobacco companies created ads to hook them on smoking. “That the adolescent need for rebellion and turn it against the industry instead of letting the industry turn it against the parents or the teachers.”

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