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Tuesday, March 12, 2002

 

TOBACCO COMPANIES FINDING EASY WAY AROUND MAGAZINE ADVERTISING BAN TO TARGET YOUTH
New Study Shows Major Flaws in 1998 Agreement

Washington D.C. - A new study examining how the nation's tobacco makers have complied with a 1998 law banning magazine advertising directed at teenagers shows that youth targeting persisted and even increased in the first two years after the ban went into effect. The study, the first to document actual violations of the youth-targeting ban to which the tobacco industry agreed in 1998, shows that tobacco companies have found ways to violate the spirit of the ban and expose teenagers to their ads "virtually unchecked."

The study appears in the March/April issue of the peer-reviewed policy journal Health Affairs. It was conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and the Children's National Medical Center in Washington D.C. Although there have been other studies looking at the extent of tobacco advertising to youth, this is the first such analysis to demonstrate how tobacco firms were able to maintain high levels of youth exposure despite the ban.

University of Chicago co-authors Paul Chung, MD, and Craig Garfield, MD, both Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars, examined how youth targeting in magazine cigarette advertisements changed after the Master Settlement Agreement with the state attorneys general was enacted nearly four years ago. They analyzed magazine readership and tracked 12,000 cigarette ads placed in 36 of the most widely read magazines from 1997 to 2000. Over that period, tobacco makers spent more than $1 billion on advertising. The top three tobacco makers - Philip Morris, Brown and Williamson, and R.J. Reynolds - accounted for nearly all of those expenditures.

The authors found that tobacco companies have learned how to appear to comply with the MSA yet still reach young readers. "Cigarette companies have had to become slightly more subtle about it but they continue to aim their advertising at people under age 18," says Chung. "We show a pattern of circumvention of both the spirit and letter of the 1998 settlement," he says.

"The tobacco industry needs the youth market to survive," adds Garfield, noting that four of five adult smokers began before age 18.

The MSA, which requires tobacco manufacturers to pay 46 states $250 billion to avert costly lawsuits from smokers with health problems, expressly forbids companies from taking "any action, directly or indirectly" to target youth by advertising, promoting or marketing tobacco products.

But the four-year-old agreement between tobacco makers and the states does not delineate clear limits on advertising in magazines that might reach young people. Nor does it offer a means by which to detect efforts that intentionally target young readers.The authors contend that "the MSA's failure to operationalize the ban with respect to magazines may have made these violations possible."

Under pressure from the state attorneys general, tobacco makers last year agreed to voluntarily resist advertising in youth magazines defined by the Food and Drug Administration as those with more than 2 million readers under 18 (including Sports Illustrated and People), or with more than 15 percent young readers (including Allure or Hot Rod). Chung and Garfield say those limits have created "giant loopholes" that allow tobacco companies to shift their ads to magazines that fall under the threshold. As a result, they say "it is entirely possible for a manufacturer to simultaneously violate the MSA and adopt the FDA definition."

Their analysis shows that the proportion of ads in magazines with just under 2 million youth readers or just under 15 percent of teenage readers grew markedly in the two years after the MSA took effect. All three major companies followed comparable but slightly different patterns. For example, R.J. Reynolds and Brown and Williamson concentrated their ads in magazines just under the 2 million mark. From 1997 to 2000, these companies reduced their effort to target youth readers in magazines above the threshold by about 30 percent while increasing youth targeting in magazines below the limit by 60 percent. Philip Morris, meanwhile, focused on magazines just under the 15 percent mark, concentrating their advertising in magazines approaching that limit and avoiding magazines with fewer than 10 percent young readers.

The authors say their findings make clear that the FDA's "arbitrary" youth magazine definition allows tobacco advertisers to violate the ban's intent. "Youth targeting that increases in magazines up to 15 percent youth readership or two million youth readers, and then decreases thereafter, is consistent with a strategy that intensifies targeting beneath the public radar," they conclude.

The findings come amid reports that two of three big tobacco makers - Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds - are scaling back their overall magazine advertising and shifting their focus to direct mail and point of purchase displays. Although the authors say that this is a step in the right direction with respect to magazines, they remain cautious. "We suspect it's a temporary business decision tied to the economy, and may not be a lasting moral stand or long-term strategy," says Garfield.

The authors say an absolute ban in magazines comparable to what exists for television, radio, transit space and billboards would be the best and most effective approach to reducing youth exposure to tobacco ads. "When it comes to magazines, the MSA didn't do the trick," says Garfield. "A ban seems like the only way to make sure this avenue for targeting youths is closed down once and for all."

Health Affairs, published by Project HOPE, is a bimonthly multidisciplinary journal devoted to publishing the leading edge in health policy thought and research. Copies of the March/April 2002 issue will be provided free to interested members of the press. To obtain a copy, or to get an advance copy of this article, contact Jon Gardner at Health Affairs, 301/656-7401, ext. 230, or via email, press@healthaffairs.org. Selected articles from the March/April issue are available free on the journal's Web site, www.healthaffairs.org.

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©2002 Project HOPE–The People-to-People Health Foundation, Inc.