Cigarette makers accused of targeting teens

MONTREAL (CUP) — Internal documents released in court earlier this week from Canada’s three major tobacco companies suggest an extensive effort goes into marketing their products to youth, some barely in their teens.

The country’s cigarette makers — JTI-MacDonald, Rothman’s-Benson and Hedges and Imperial Tobacco — are challenging Bill C-71, adopted by the federal government in 1996.

The legislation restricts advertising campaigns that promote smoking as a lifestyle and allows lawmakers to regulate the packaging and production of cigarettes. Since 1997, the industry has been taking steps to challenge the law, and on Tuesday, Richard Pollay, a professor of commerce at the University of British Colombia, testified for the defense at a hearing at the Palais de Justice of Montreal.

Pollay testified that Imperial’s ads for Players cigarettes, for example, are geared specifically toward teenagers because the ads “[offer] adult images, rich with connotations of independence, freedom from authority and self-reliance.”

Pollay said he believes the sponsorship of extreme sports, notably Formula 1 racing, fits in well with the “reckless” attitude the brand tries to project.

A 1996 Rothman’s-Benson and Hedges report on one of its competitors, which took prosecutors five years to obtain, stated that “Imperial Tobacco owns the 14-17 segment, with over 90 per cent of consumers smoking du Maurier or Players.”

The same document also said that Imperial’s own documents directly targeted pre-teens:

“The 1988 Tracking Study is the second of a planned series of research studies into the lifestyles and value systems of young men and women in the 13 to 24 age range.”

According to a report Pollay published at UBC, “closed-circuit television observation facilities were in use for observers from Imperial Tobacco,” set up in hotel rooms where the behavioral patterns of children as young as 11 were analyzed by advertising experts. The results of the experiment revealed that “the adolescent seeks to display his new urge for independence with a symbol, and cigarettes are such a symbol.”

In Imperial’s “Plus/Minus” marketing project, data were included on “starters and quitters among the young,” and more specifically, teenagers 15 to 19 years of age.

“The purpose of project Plus/Minus is to update [Imperial Tobacco’s] portraits of starters and quitters,” and to “explore causal factors leading to quitting.”

Pollay testified that he found most smokers picked up the habit at between the ages of 14 and 16, and most were male. The logical assumption, according to the witness, would be that the tobacco companies would try and target their advertising at that cross-section of the population.

“The younger segment represents the most critical source of business to maintain volume and grow share in a declining market,” he said.

Lawyers for the tobacco companies claimed that their research showed the target market to be males of legal age: between the ages of 18 and 24.

“It’s not [tobacco] advertising that convinces minors to smoke,” said lawyer Simon Potter, “it’s television and the media.”

According to Pollay, only 3 per cent of smokers are considered “convertible,” meaning they would be willing to switch brands. His testimony concluded that because “brand loyalty is so fierce,” tobacco companies must attract new smokers, regardless of age. Furthermore, the existence of only a handful of companies in Canada owning numerous brands names, reduces the risk of a loss of business to the competition.

“The majority [of teenagers] will settle with a brand,” said Pollay. “:and if you successfully capture a large share of [young adults], you will also capture a large share of 30- and 40-year-olds.”

Crown prosecutor Claude Joyal also said “young people start smoking before 18.”

Joyal defended law C-71, saying it serves to protect public interest, and rejected claims that the law is an over-reaction on the part of the government.

“This isn’t an act of deception,” said Potter.

He estimated that the companies incur “bottom-line losses of $20 million for every 1 per cent” of lost market share. “They simply want to have the right to communicate with consumers.”

Although the tobacco advertising laws are slowly going into effect, Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst for the Canadian Cancer Society, believes the corporations will not tone down their campaigns.

Tobacco companies are “very creative,” and “experts at finding loopholes,” he said.

“Imperial’s extensive sponsorship portfolio is being re-staged under new corporate names,” added Pollay. “That will allow them to continue exploiting the huge equity in their investments in [major international events].”

Lawyers for the tobacco industry will cross-examine Pollay next week, in a trial that is only three months old, but with no apparent end in sight.

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