Tobacco Industry "Prevention" Programs

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May, 1999

One of the most visible and hypocritical strategies of the tobacco industry is the development of tobacco “prevention” programs. These programs fall loosely into three categories: youth access programs, industry-sponsored educational programs, and youth program partnerships. The most disturbing aspect of these programs is that many businesses and individuals have fallen for the tobacco industry’s ruse. Examples include Danny Glover’s representation of R.J. Reynolds on behalf of its “Support The Law--It Works” program, the tobacco companies’ JAYS (Jaycees Against Youth Smoking) program, and Philip Morris’ partnership with 4-H.

There is, however, an important instructive value to the tobacco industry’s own “anti-tobacco” programs. We have long relied on the tobacco industry’s own reactions to anti-tobacco strategies as a means of assessing our own effectiveness. In other words, if the tobacco industry adopts a given strategy, then that strategy is probably ineffective at controlling tobacco use (or may even backfire). Conversely, if the tobacco industry aggressively opposes an anti-tobacco effort, we have evidence that that particular strategy is effective.

Tobacco Industry Youth Access Programs

“It’s the Law”

This was the Tobacco Institute’s first major “youth access” program, now retired. The primary component of “It’s the Law” was the distribution of blue signs with white and orange lettering which read: “It’s the Law: We Do Not Sell Tobacco Products to Persons Under 18.” In late 1990, the Tobacco Institute announced a $10 million public relations campaign surrounding “It’s the Law.” In addition to posting signs, the program also included:

Not surprisingly, a 1996 article published in the American Journal of Public Health found “It's the Law” programs were not associated with a significant reduction in illegal sales either with vending machines or over-the-counter sources (DiFranza, Savageau & Aisquith, 1996). Tobacco control activists long suspected that the actual purpose of the program was to improve the low public image of the tobacco industry, while legitimizing certain industry lobbying efforts. With the forced release of internal industry documents, this suspicion has been confirmed (Hanners, 1998).


“Support The Law -- It Works”

Much like “It’s the Law,” this was R.J. Reynolds’ first “comprehensive” retail program. The program was most notable for having enlisted actor Danny Glover as its spokesperson. “Support The Law - It Works” bore many similarities to the Tobacco Institute’s “It’s the Law,” including a focus on signage and on framing smoking as an adult activity.


“We Card”

In 1995, amidst great fanfare, the Coalition for Responsible Tobacco Retailing, whose members included cigarette and smokeless tobacco companies and leading convenience store and supermarket chains, unveiled a new national voluntary program to combat tobacco sales to minors. The program, heavily backed by the Tobacco Institute, centers on having store clerks ask for picture identification from anyone appearing younger than 25 before selling them any tobacco product. Participating stores receive signs that read, “Under 18. We Card. No Tobacco,” together with employee training guides, a calendar indicating the date of birth required to legally purchase tobacco, and various pins, pads, and decals. Substantively, the program is quite similar to the “It’s the Law” program, which it replaced.


“Action Against Access”

Philip Morris (PM) is touting their latest program, Action Against Access (AAA), as one of the most comprehensive programs ever introduced to combat youth access to cigarettes. Designed as a complement to the “We Card” program, AAA purports to discourage minors from smoking by:

Though touted as a major effort to curtail illegal sale of tobacco to minors, in reality AAA is strictly a publicity campaign, as is now evident from internal industry documents released under court order (Hanners, 1998). AAA came at a time when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was proposing to regulate tobacco as a drug and cut down on sales to minors. Moreover, public sentiment had moved strongly against the tobacco industry. It is worth noting that one year after launching the program, not a single merchant had been sanctioned for selling tobacco to minors and there was no evidence that the program had any positive impact whatsoever on youth access to tobacco (Levine, 1996).

Tobacco Industry Education Programs

“The Family C.O.U.R.S.E. Consortium”

Unveiled in 1990, the C.O.U.R.S.E. (Communication Through Understanding, Respect and Self-Esteem) Consortium was created by the Tobacco Institute. The C.O.U.R.S.E. “curriculum” includes two basic components: Distribution of the booklet “Tobacco: Helping Youth Say No” and television PSA’s with the theme “Smoking should not be a part of growing up.” Both of these components are produced by the Tobacco Institute.

The themes underlying the C.O.U.R.S.E. “curriculum” or philosophy are familiar:

“Helping Youth Say No”

Prepared for the Tobacco Institute by the Family C.O.U.R.S.E. Consortium, this publication is the tobacco industry’s major document on youth and tobacco. Subtitled “A Parent’s Guide to Helping Teenagers Cope With Peer Pressure,” “Helping Youth Say No” provides us with excellent guidance on the tobacco industry’s view, not on what works, but on what is actually ineffective in reaching youth.

The major themes which emerge from “Tobacco: Helping Youth Say No,” are:

“Right Decisions. Right Now.”

This program, developed by R..J. Reynolds in 1991, reiterates many of the same themes expressed in the Tobacco Institute’s “Tobacco: Helping Youth Say No.” Program themes include:

The program has increased in scope over time. RJR is now promoting full-color, glossy materials in schools. The materials offered, free of charge, include posters, brochures for students, and even an “anti-smoking” curriculum. The widely distributed posters are cleverly crafted to contain overt anti-smoking language combined with a visual that contains a subtle pro-smoking message. For example, the text on one poster reads, “If Smoking Made You More Attractive, You’d Look Better Doing It.” In the foreground of the poster is a young woman, cigarette in hand, whose off-beat dress is more congruent with youth culture than that of the three teens in the background who are all attired in more conventional clothes.

RJ Reynolds has also sponsored Right Decisions/Right Now (RD/RN) activities at youth-oriented places. During the 1995 spring break, for example, RJR promoted RD/RN in a booth at a southern California theme park where they distributed RD/RN materials, including RD/RN “pogs”, a popular kid’s game. RJR has also succeeded in getting RD/RN posters placed in a number of feature movies, made for TV movies, and popular TV shows, such as Beverly Hills 90210.

The Philip Morris Media Campaign

In 1999, Philip Morris launched a new media campaign which it claims is designed to discourage underage smoking. Touting the theme, “Think. Don’t Smoke,” the 30-second TV spots run on every major broadcast and cable network station in conjunction with youth-oriented programs. Through the ads, Philip Morris has found a way to once again plaster its name across the TV screen, something it had not done since 1971.

Are the ads effective? Of course not. According to research conducted by an independent research firm—Teenage Research Unlimited—youth age 12 to 16 consistently found the Philip Morris ads far weaker than the anti-smoking ads produced by Arizona, California, Massachusetts and Florida. In fact, many youth felt the main message of the ads was “it’s up to me whether or not I smoke.” Once again, the tobacco industry is cynically using public health rhetoric to hide its true intentions—to recruit new smokers and to forestall regulation of the industry.

Youth Program Partnerships

In recent years, the tobacco industry has recognized that its support among the general public has eroded to a point where it has little credibility. As a result, many individuals and organizations are reluctant to use materials that are produced by the industry. To build public support, and to extend the reach of ineffective anti-smoking materials, the industry has increasingly turned to partnerships with organizations that enjoy solid reputations. Offered below are two examples of these partnerships—one that augments the tobacco industry’s “youth access” focus, the other that extends its “educational” programs.


The tobacco industry has worked closely with the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce to develop its “JAYS” (Jaycees Against Youth Smoking) program. The program’s primary aim is to encourage retailers to comply with minimum-age tobacco sales laws. The program also seeks to raise awareness of the problem of the illegal sale of tobacco to kids in the local community.

There is little evidence that even well-designed youth access program actually reduce under-age smoking, and the JAYS program falls considerably below the standards of a sound youth access initiative. Though well-intentioned, the Jaycees have been lured into a partnership that is neither in their interest nor the general interest of youth. The only real interest it serves is that of the tobacco marketer.


Claiming that it comes with “no strings attached,” the National 4-H Council, fund-raising arm of 4-H, has accepted $4.3 million from tobacco giant, Philip Morris. The money is to be used to develop and disseminate a nationwide youth tobacco prevention program. The National 4-H Council has defended its decision by insisting that it is free to develop its program without interference from the tobacco giant and that the cigarette maker has no power to veto any materials produced. However, they have acknowledged that industry representatives sit on the design team—a group without significant representation from any of the major health organizations. Already, the nascent program has framed the issue of tobacco use as one of making informed “choices.” This framing ignores the most potent modes of prevention, namely changing community norms, revealing the lies and deceptions of the tobacco industry, and enacting local legislation to protect nonsmokers in worksites, restaurants, and other public venues.



An analysis of the tobacco industry’s own programs and publications gives us important guidance regarding what the tobacco industry regards as ineffective in anti-tobacco interventions. Because of their sophistication and vast resources, substantial credence should be given to the tobacco industry’s assessments, and we recommend steering clear of those strategies and interventions which they embrace.

Youth Access

All of youth access programs developed or backed by the tobacco industry rely on the voluntary cooperation of tobacco retailers. Not surprisingly, these voluntary programs invariably fail to make a dent in youth access. The primary reason for the failure is simple. Tobacco sales to minors are quite lucrative, with youth spending approximately one billion dollars annually on tobacco products (Cummings et al., 1994). Understandably, merchants are reluctant to forego this source of substantial income. It is also the case that when there is no clear and consistent enforcement of youth access restrictions, merchants often believe that if they were to refuse to sell tobacco to minors, their competitors may still do so.

The problem with the industry backed “youth access” programs is not only that they are ineffective, however. Even if they were to succeed in their stated goal (reducing illegal sales to minors), they would likely still fail at the far more important goal, namely to reduce teen tobacco consumption. Research demonstrates that teen smoking rates often remain stable even when effective youth access programs are implemented (Rigotti et al., 1997). Unfortunately, the tobacco industry has been highly successful at framing the national tobacco debate as a “kids” issue, and the basic strategy debate as one of reducing youth access. We should accept neither of these positions.

Smoking as an “adult activity”

The tobacco industry portrays smoking as an “adult activity.” This is an extremely effective strategy. First, adult activities are by definition attractive to many young people. Second, this strategy lumps smoking in with many other adult activities, such as making one’s own choices, which are not inherently harmful. Third, it ignores the addictive nature of nicotine, implying that smoking is simply an adult “choice” or habit, rather than an addiction.

Punishing children

The tobacco industry favors programs and policies penalizing youth for purchasing and possessing cigarettes. The reason for this is obvious -- attention is diverted from the tobacco industry’s own culpability; blame is shifted onto children and parents. It also lessens the perceived responsibility of merchants. Effective tobacco control policies should avoid all appearance or effect of punishing youth and place responsibility and punishment firmly on the tobacco industry’s shoulders.


The single favorite strategy of the tobacco industry concerning youth is the posting of signs directed at young people. Signs directed at young customers give the message that smoking is an adult privilege. The tobacco industry has identified “‘the forbidden fruit’ appeal as an important factor in adolescent experimentation” with smoking (DiFranza and McAfee, 1992). Care should be taken in our own policies not to unintentionally reinforce the forbidden fruit motif, thereby increasing the attractiveness of tobacco to youth.

Peer pressure

The tobacco industry fosters a myth of intense, omnipresent peer pressure in the tobacco arena. In reality, most teens and younger kids do not smoke, and environmental cues such as tobacco advertising are more important factors in initiation than peer pressure. This is illustrated by the finding that after the massive Joe Camel advertising campaign began, Camel cigarette’s market share among underage youth increased from 0.5% in 1988 to 32.8% in 1991 (DiFranza et al., 1991).

Just Say “No”

The tobacco industry urges youth and parents to “Just Say No” to tobacco (e.g., “Helping Youth Say No”). The industry evidently has determined that this approach to prevention is ineffective. The lesson for our own programs is that we must strive to implement effective prevention programs that unite parents, youth, and the broader community against a common enemy -- the tobacco industry.

Ultimately, the primary purpose of the tobacco industry’s youth access and tobacco education efforts is simply to divert energy away from interventions that are more effective in preventing tobacco addiction among both children and adults. Such interventions include banning tobacco advertising and promotion, promoting nonsmokers’ rights (which the Tobacco Institute has identified as “the greatest threat to the viability of the tobacco industry which has yet occurred” (Roper, 1978)) through local clean indoor air laws, and raising tobacco excise taxes.



© Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, 1996, revised 1999