Cigarette Ads - A Promise Broken

By Ellen Kuwana
Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer
September 26, 2001

In 1994, a mysterious box arrived at the office of Professor Stanton Glantz, a cardiologist and anti-smoking advocate at the University of California, San Francisco. The return address simply read, "Mr. Butts," perhaps a reference to the Doonesbury cartoon character. The box contained 4,000 secret internal papers from Brown & Williamson, the third largest US tobacco company.

These documents outlined more than 30 years of research, finally proving beyond any doubt that the tobacco industry knew that tobacco--or more specifically, nicotine, the active ingredient in tobacco--was addictive. This contradicted years of testimony by tobacco company executives, who had claimed that cigarettes were not addictive and that there was no proof that they were bad for your health. Thus, these "tobacco papers" proved that tobacco companies had lied to the public. The tobacco companies knew that cigarettes were addictive, and that they caused disease and death.

The highest-ranking executive to testify and tell the truth was Jeffrey Wigand, whose story was told in the 1999 movie, The Insider. Faced with the public and courts knowing the truth, major cigarette manufacturers in the US signed the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) in November 1998. The MSA established specific guidelines for tobacco companies. For example, tobacco companies agreed to stop targeting teenagers in advertisements. One of the terms of the lawsuit was a ban on cigarette advertisements in magazines popular with teens. This ban took effect in 2000.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (August 16, 2001) concludes that cigarette makers have not reduced their spending on ads that reach middle- and high-school students. "Our findings suggest that the tobacco settlement was a total failure in terms of protecting kids from cigarette advertising," commented Dr. Michael Siegel, a public health specialist at Boston University and the study's co-author.

Dr. Siegel and his coworkers looked at 38 magazines to track pre- and post-settlement ads for 15 cigarette brands. Although in general, tobacco companies were spending less on magazine ads (see top bar graph at right), the researchers were shocked to find that "youth-oriented" magazines, those having at least 2 million readers, ages 12-17, received more advertising money from cigarette makers since the MSA instead of a decrease or a stop altogether. (See bottom bar graph at right.)

The "youth-oriented" magazines are reaching their targets: the researchers estimate that 8 out of 10 youths viewed cigarette ads in magazines about 17 times last year. What they can not estimate, however, is what effect this has on teens and the decisions they make about smoking.

Cigarette makers deny that they target youths. Tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds, for example, does not buy ad space in magazines where youths make up 25% or more of the readership. The major cigarette maker Philip Morris USA removed about 50 ads from various publications after the national tobacco settlement. Obviously, though, not all cigarette makers are following the settlement's guidelines.

There is some good news: according to a government study released July 2001, smoking rates have declined for eighth through twelfth graders. For example, in 1997, 25% twelfth graders smoked; in 2000, that number decreased to 21%. The study attributes the decline in youth smoking to increased efforts by the states to educate youth about the risks of smoking. The money for these anti-smoking programs comes from the Master Settlement Agreement. Another factor that may have contributed to the decline in youth smoking is the increased price of cigarettes.

See for yourself if cigarette ads are in magazines such as Rolling Stone, Elle, and People. What is the ad is trying to make you feel: relaxed, rich, glamorous, desirable? Does smoking really make you more glamorous and more rich?

In Canada, cigarette manufacturers are required to use 50% of the outside packaging to warn consumers about the effects of smoking. We're not talking bland warnings in text--no, we're talking graphic photographs. So, on a cigarette box in Canada, you might see a photo of diseased lungs, a cancerous mouth or a brain cut in half showing damage from a stroke. In the US, warnings on cigarette packs first appeared in 1965, but each warning is only a small box of text. Perhaps we should take a tip from our Northern neighbor and show the "real" side of smoking right on the cigarette pack. We can only hope, for now, that teens are smart enough to see through the "smokescreen" of cigarette makers and decide for themselves that smoking is not cool.

  • In the Master Settlement Agreement, cigarette manufacturers agreed to pay $206 billion over 25 years to 46 states to cover tobacco-related health-care costs.

  • The MSA also calls for every state to fund smoking-prevention measures, create a nationwide campaign for public education, and to place limits on tobacco advertising


  • Cigarette brands favored by youth are more likely than adult-favored brands to be advertised in magazines with high youth readerships (Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 1999).

  • In 1997, the five largest tobacco companies earned an estimated $480 million in profit from cigarettes smoked by people under the age of 18 (DiFranza JR, State and Federal Revenues From Tobacco Consumed by Minors, Am J Public Health. 1999;89:1106-1108).

  • Each day, approximately 3,000 children start smoking. (reference: Healthscout)

  • 400,000 people die each year from smoking-related illnesses. (reference: Healthscout)

  • China is the largest producer of cigarettes in the world. In China, two-thirds of men smoke (reference: British Medical Journal, August 16, 2001). 30% of the world's cigarettes are consumed in China.


  1. Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
  2. UCSF Tobacco Control Archives FAQ
  3. The Tobacco Papers, on-line
  4. Online encyclopedia on tobacco and related issues
  5. Health Effects of Smoking

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