Years ago, Big Tobacco was infamous for covertly targeting its advertising toward young people. In fact, it is still going on. According to the organization Truth Initiative, tobacco companies continue to place a disproportionate number of ads in low-income neighborhoods, particularly in predominantly African-American communities.

Fortunately, the efforts of Truth Initiative have resulted in a decline in juvenile smoking from 23% a decade ago down to its current rate of 6% . The bad news is that e-cigarette manufacturers have taken a page from the old playbook, aiming its advertisements at a youthful demographic. Furthermore, recent research indicates that such advertising is leading teens to take up cigarette smoking.

The study, known as the Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health (PATH), was sponsored by the Moores Cancer Center at the University of California San Diego and Dartmouth University’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center, and published this week in the journal Pediatrics.  The study focused on adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 who had never before used tobacco. The researchers, behavioral scientists, found that almost 50% of those studied were receptive to tobacco products when they could remember or enjoyed even one advertisement. This receptivity to tobacco advertising – including that for e-cigarettes – has been strongly linked to the likelihood that a person will take up smoking or other tobacco use (e.g., chewing tobacco).

The study involved nearly 11,000 subjects, who were asked to respond to three questions regarding: (1) how curious they were about the product, (2) plans to try such products in the future and (3) how likely they would try tobacco based on a friend’s recommendation or if it was offered to them.

Those participants who expressed strong rejection to all three were eliminated from the study. Those remaining were shown 20 different tobacco ads randomly selected from almost 1,000 promotions taken from print, broadcast and Internet sources. Afterward, participants were asked to identify their favorite tobacco advertisement, then shown ads for combustible cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes and asked whether or not they liked the advertisement.

Results indicated that more than 40% of 12 to 13-year-olds and approximately 50% of those aged 14 to 17 were receptive to such commercial promotions. Lead author Dr. John P. Pierce said, “What we’re seeing in this study is that even being receptive to marketing of non-cigarette tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, is associated with susceptibility to smoke cigarettes.”

These findings confirm results of a previous study showing a correlation between e-cigarette use among youth and tendencies to go on to use combustible tobacco.

Dr. Pierce stated:

The imagery used by tobacco companies focuses on the aspirations of young people, including having fun, being independent, sophisticated, socially accepted, popular, etc…those who have an emotive response to these aspirational images are more likely to see use of the product as a way to achieve their aspirations.”

Such marketing tactics have been used aggressively by advertisers since the 1920s for a wide array of consumer products, of course. Nonetheless, the fact that Big Tobacco continues to use them in order to sell a product to vulnerable populations more likely to develop life-long addictions to products clearly demonstrated to cause serious, life-threatening health problems is unconscionable – and should be considered criminal.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.