Surgeon General’s report

Herein lies the nub of opposition to tobacco advertising. Its critics argue that whatever its effects (and using reductionist methodologies, these are extraordinarily difficult to dissect from the contemporaneous influence of other tobacco control strategies) the intention of tobacco advertisers is by definition to promote tobacco use. The ‘brand switching’ argument is quite irrelevant to this concern, for a brand cannot be promoted without promoting smoking itself. If governments have policies

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to reduce tobacco use, policies that allow tobacco advertising are simply inconsistent with these. By any standard, tobacco is no ordinary product. A recent US Surgeon General stated in the preface to the 1990 Surgeon General’s report on smoking: ‘it is safe to say that smoking represents the most extensively documented cause of disease ever investigated in the history of biomedical research’. The first section of this book documents the effects of tobacco use still further. Efforts to ban tobacco advertising have not been mounted because of ethical concerns for the imagery and persuasive rhetoric employed, but because the intention of this advertising is to promote tobacco use. And there is a wealth of evidence that it succeeds in doing so.

Being no ordinary product in causing the catastrophic degree of harm and cost to both individuals and the state that it does throughout populations, advocates of banning advertising argue that it is reasonable that tobacco should be subject to extraordinary controls designed to reduce this harm. Controlling advertising is but one form of such control. Tobacco advertising and children In many countries, it is illegal to sell tobacco to children.

This is of critical  relevance to any discussion on the ethics of tobacco advertising. Where laws forbid the sale of tobacco products to children, it is because children are said to be below an age where their informed consent can be assumed. It is, therefore, reasoned that tobacco advertising appeals directed at them or which can be shown to appeal to them are unethical in that they seek or cause to influence consent in people deemed legally incapable of consenting.

It has been repeatedly shown that children do indeed see, recall, admire, discuss and generally relate to advertising in the same sort of ways that adults are intended to do by tobacco advertisers. Apart from the obvious point that the tobacco industry makes much money from sales to underage smokers38, the research on the impact of advertising on children makes nonsense of any pretence that advertising is ‘targeted’ only to adult smokers.

With the exception of premises where children are forbidden by law from entering (for example casinos, legal brothels, some premises licensed to sell alcohol), there are no advertising sites nor media to which children do not have the same access as adults. Some countries have arrangements, usually in the form of voluntary codes negotiated with the tobacco industry, that tobacco advertising will be ‘restrained’ in various ways. In entering such voluntary agreements, the tobacco industry typically asserts that it is not intent on targeting its advertising at children, further asserting that it regards smoking as ‘an adult custom’ and does not wish children to smoke.

For example, several countries in the past have endorsed voluntary agreements with the industry whereby cigarette advertisements will only be screened on television late at night, and not placed on billboards closer than 200 metres from schools. In such arrangements, an admission is being made by government and industry, as parties to these agreements, that there is a case for trying to minimise the exposure of children to such advertising that if they were exposed, the advertisements might succeed in the same intent that they have for adults.

In practice, the logic of partial or selective tobacco advertising bans is equivalent to the ambition to be ‘a little bit pregnant’. Many children do not go to bed before the arbitrary times after which cigarette advertising is screened, and with the popularisation of video recorders, many children record programs including advertisements screened after their bedtime. The logic of banning tobacco billboards adjacent to schools is even more absurd. Here, it is being suggested that a child sighting such a billboard 195 metres from a school might be influenced by its message, but the same child sighting the same advertisement 205 metres from a school would somehow be immune from its persuasions.

Partial bans carry with them an ethical conviction that tobacco advertising should be controlled, but belie this conviction by allowing the very same advertising that is banned to be displayed in the different media still permitted to carry such advertising. Such absurdity can only be interpreted as the product of an ethical duplicity cynically put to the service of collusive governmental and industry posturing about their responsibilities to children.


Roemer R. Legislative action to combat the world tobacco epidemic. 2nd edn. Geneva: World Health Organization, 1993

Toxic Substances Board. Health or tobacco: an end to tobacco advertising and promotion. Wellington, New Zealand: May 1989

Smee C. Effect of tobacco advertising on tobacco consumption: a discussion document reviewing the evidence. Department of Health, UK; 1992

US Surgeon General. Preventing tobacco use among young people. US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control, Center for Health Promotion and Education, Office on Smoking and Health. Rockville, MD: 1994

Federal Trade Commission. Cigarette advertising and promotion in the United States, 1992. Tobacco Control 1994; 3: 286-9

Laugesen M, Meads C. Tobacco advertising restrictions, price, income and tobacco consumption in OECD countries, 1960-1986. Br J Addict 1991; 86: 1343-54

Aitken PP, Leathar DS, O’Hagan FJ, Squair SI. Children’s awareness of cigarette advertisements and brand imagery. Br J Addict 1987; 82: 615-22