Phony Youth Smoking Programs

In December 1991, a study revealed that 91% of six year olds new that Joe Camel was about cigarettes. An ensuing lawsuit revealed that RJ Reynolds had developed that campaign because, “In view of the need to reverse the preference for Marlboros among young smokers, I wonder whether comic strip type copy might get a much higher readership among younger people than any other type of copy.”

Pressure increased on legislators to protect children from tobacco industry marketing and advertising. The tobacco industry began forming Youth Smoking Prevention (YSP) programs to defuse public anger and give their legislators cover to claim that something was being done. YSPs were also part of a deal with the Clinton White House to stop the push for FDA regulation of tobacco. Before they were finally exposed as a fraud and a PR tool in 2002, they did much damage.

YSPs always portrayed smoking as an “adult choice”, which the industry knew would encourage young people to try it rather than discouraging them. YSPs allowed tobacco companies to keep surveying youth about their marketing preferences, by claiming they needed the information to develop YSP programs. Youth access programs instructed retailers to ask for ID when selling cigarettes, which gave Tobacco Institute representatives access to cigarette retailers across the country. They instructed employees to report back when they heard of local efforts to enact smoking ordinances, marketing restrictions, clean indoor air laws or tax increases, so the Tobacco Institute could organize opposing efforts.

Tobacco companies measured YSP programs success not by measuring the smoking rate among teens, but by counting how many impressions the YSP ads made on the public, and conducting surveys to detect improvement in the public’s attitude toward the industry.