WHO on Education Strategy as Tobacco Tactic

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The tobacco industry used education programmes as an instrument to be accepted as a good corporate citizen. The following is taken verbatim from pages 13 through 14 of the 2009 WHO report Tobacco industry interference with tobacco control.1


There are numerous examples of the industry setting up and running ostensibly ‘anti- smoking’ education programmes for schools, the media, young people and parents.2345

Schools and educational and youth ministries sometimes welcome these programmes, as they are well financed, include attractive materials and may be accompanied by other incentives such as funds for school equipment; however, these programmes invariably fail to provide prominent, detailed, emotionally engaging, graphic information about the health risks of tobacco use, which are the message characteristics known to be critical in involving youth in anti-smoking efforts.67 They also fail to point out the role of tobacco companies’ marketing strategies in enticing young people to smoke. Typically, industry educational interventions depict smoking as an ‘adult choice’ and as ‘uncool’. 

Deter the Next Generation?

An evaluation of United States tobacco company public campaigns supposedly designed to dissuade young people from smoking concluded that:8

“exposure to tobacco company youth-targeted smoking prevention advertising generally had no beneficial outcomes for youths. Exposure to tobacco company parent-targeted advertising may have harmful effects on youth, especially among youths in grades 10 and 12”.

It would be unimaginable for any enterprise to seek to deter the next generation of potential consumers from entering the marketplace.9 Yet that is what the tobacco industry, like the drinks industry, says.10 Given the value of young potential smokers to the industry,1112 such statements must be carefully scrutinized13

No tobacco company has ever agreed to an independent audit of sales to underage smokers, nor to return those earnings to, for example, independent health agencies in support of evidence- based tobacco control.1415

Claim the Mantle of Good Corporate Citizenship

Tobacco industry-sponsored ‘youth smoking prevention’ (YSP) programmes have several benefits for tobacco companies, which can claim the mantle of good corporate citizenship by ‘protecting’ the young, thus building a store of public and political goodwill designed to temper anti-tobacco regulations. These efforts also allow them to keep their corporate name in the public eye. They have been able to become partners in campaigns with government and even with some less sophisticated, resource-poor public health groups, thus helping to neutralize strategic opposition to industry activities in other areas.16

An exhaustive analysis of thousands of tobacco industry documents revealed much about the development of and rationale for the industry’s ‘youth smoking prevention’ programmes. As noted in the authors’ summary, the purpose of YSP programmes17

“is not to reduce youth smoking but rather to serve the industry’s political needs by preventing effective tobacco control legislation, marginalizing public health advocates, preserving the industry’s access to youths, creating allies within policymaking and regulatory bodies, defusing opposition from parents and educators, bolstering industry credibility, and preserving the industry’s influence with policymakers”.

The archival evidence led the authors to conclude that the industry started these programmes “to forestall legislation that would restrict industry activities. Industry programmes portray smoking as an adult choice and fail to discuss how tobacco advertising promotes smoking or the health dangers of smoking” and that youth programmes “do more harm than good for tobacco control”.17 The tobacco industry should not be allowed to run or directly fund youth smoking prevention programmes. In reality, industry campaigns are “lacking several of the types of components that are contained in effective programming”.17

“A Phony Way of Showing Sincerity”

The paper also notes, with further evidence on tobacco company websites, that industry-sponsored YSP programmes are widespread.17 From eastern Europe to Scandinavia, to the Middle East, Asia,18 Australia19 and Latin America, the same strategies have been used. Programmes include:17

  • ‘Think, Don’t Smoke’ (Philip Morris),
  • ‘Tobacco Is Whacko’ (Lorillard),
  • ‘Fumar Es una Decisión de Adultos’ (Philip Morris International),
  • ‘Right Decisions, Right Now’ (R.J. Reynolds),
  • ‘Helping Youth Decide’ (Tobacco Institute),
  • ‘Helping Youth Say No’ (Tobacco Institute, Philip Morris),
  • ‘Health Rocks’ (Philip Morris),
  • ‘Aprende a Decidir por ti Mismo’ (R.J. Reynolds),
  • ‘Yo Tengo P.O.D.E.R.’ (Philip Morris International) and
  • ‘Yo Tengo V.A.L.O.R.’ (Philip Morris International)

An internal memo of Philip Morris International in 1993 disclosed the rationale for the company’s approach:20

“Taking into consideration the emerging adverse legislative climate in the American region, we have an opportunity to create good will for the tobacco industry by going public with a campaign to discourage juvenile smoking. Our objective is to communicate that the tobacco industry is not interested in having young people smoke and to position the industry as ’a concerned corporate citizen’ in an effort to ward off further attacks by the anti-tobacco movement”.

The minutes of an industry meeting in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in 1973 record a British American Tobacco official as saying, of a proposed initiative being offered to the Government to deter exposure of young people to cigarette advertising:21

“This is one of the proposals that we shall initiate to show that we as an industry are doing something about discouraging young people to smoke. This of course is a phony way of showing sincerity as we all well know”.

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  1. WHO, Tobacco industry interference with tobacco control, 2009, accessed June 2020
  2. E.M. Sebrie, S.A. Glantz, Attempts to undermine tobacco control: tobacco industry ‘youth smoking prevention’ programs to undermine meaningful tobacco control in Latin America, American Journal of Public Health, 2007;97:1357–1367, doi:10.2105/AJPH.2006.094128
  3. M. Assunta, S. Chapman, Industry sponsored youth smoking prevention programme in Malaysia: a case study in duplicity, Tobacco Control, 2004;13(Suppl 2):37–42, doi:10.1136/tc.2004.007732
  4. A. Landman, P.M. Ling, S.A. Glantz, Tobacco industry youth smoking prevention programs: protecting the industry and hurting tobacco control, American Journal of Public Health, 2002;92:917–930, doi:10.2105/AJPH.92.6.917
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  9. Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Tobacco Advertising and Youth: The Essential Facts, CTFK website, 2008, accessed July 2020
  10. Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, E-cigarettes: Flavoured products fuel a youth epidemic, CTFK website, last updated 24 February 2020, accessed June 2020
  11. C. Healton, M.C. Farrelly, D. Weitzenkamp, D. Lindsey, M.L. Haviland, Youth smoking prevention and tobacco industry revenue, Tobacco Control, 2006;15:103–106, doi:10.1136/tc.2005.012237
  12. V. White, M. Scollo, What are underage smokers worth to Australian tobacco companies?, Australian New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 2003;27(3):360–361, doi:10.1111/j.1467-842X.2003.tb00409.x
  13. C. Perry, The tobacco industry and underage youth smoking: tobacco industry documents from the Minnesota litigation, Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 1999;153(9):935 – 941, doi:10.1001/archpedi.153.9.935
  14. World Health Organization, Statement by the Director-General to the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body on the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control at its Fifth Session, 15 October 2002, archived June 2010, accessed July 2020
  15. ASH, Tobacco industry youth smoking prevention programmes—a critique, accessed 10 November 2008
  16. World Health Organization, Building blocks of tobacco control: A handbook, Chapter 13: Countering the tobacco industry, 2004, accessed 11 October 2007
  17. abcdeS. Sussman, Tobacco industry youth tobacco prevention programming: a review, Prevention Science, 2002;3:57–67, doi:10.1023/A:1014623426877
  18. S. Chapman, “The contemporary, irreverent brand of youth with an independent streak”: BAT’s youth promotions in Myanmar, Tobacco Control, 2004;13:93, doi:10.1136/tc.2003.006585
  19. S.M. Carter, From legitimate consumers to public relations pawns: the tobacco industry and young Australians, Tobacco Control, 2003;12:71–78, doi:10.1136/tc.12.suppl_3.iii71
  20. C. Leiber, Philip Morris International, Youth campaign for Latin America, 23 September 1993, Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, ID: ngbd0110
  21. S. Hung, Smoking and health meeting, 14 February 1973, Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, ID: fzjx0111