Posted on August 31st, 2012

Back to School – Tobacco and Advertising

In a study completed by Douglas Luke, Emily Esmundo and Yael Bloom of Saint Louis University (SLU), the research team used GIS to assess the spatial distribution of tobacco billboard advertisements within different regions of St. Louis, Missouri. In 1999, the tobacco industry agreed to remove all outdoor advertisement of their products, and this study was completed in the period leading up to this mass removal campaign. Their intent was to assess if these tobacco advertisements were disproportionately located in poorer, more urban areas. According to Federal Trade Commission numbers, in 1996, tobacco companies spent over $5-billion dollars on advertising and promotions – $300 million of which was specifically spent on outdoor advertising. As government officials realized the possible link between outdoor tobacco advertising and the likelihood of youth picking up the habit, they used political pressure to ink this removal ‘agreement’ between producers/manufacturers and the Feds.

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While the SLU study took place in the city and county of St. Louis, the city is an independent municipal entity and does not affiliate with the county on political and economic matters. The combined regional population consisted of 1.35 million people at the time of the study – of which 50% were white and nearly 48% were black within the city; but within the county, 84% were white and only 14% of the residents were black. Further, the average income in the county was twice that of the poorer city of St. Louis.

Over 1,200 miles of road were surveyed by the researchers for billboard placement and content. Of 1,239 non-blank billboards, 242, or nearly 20%, contained tobacco advertisements, making them the single largest category of ads. They also found that the billboards advertising tobacco were more likely to be located in the city, and specifically in the poorest areas of the city. Upon further analysis of the content on the billboards, the researchers noted that when placed in the sections of town that were predominately black, the models used on the billboards were also primarily black. There was also concern that 74% of billboards fell within 2,000 feet of schools, playgrounds and daycare centers where children were most likely to see them.

While wildfire is of great concern for numerous reasons, it also has ‘cleansing’ effects on the areas it clears. Aside from clearing out naturally-occurring debris, it also can eradicate insects and disease as well as stimulate new growth that provides essential nutrients to the habitants of the forest. This study also helped to assess the effects of urban sprawl on biodiversity and ecosystem health. Species loss can trigger a domino effect in the environment that leads to further decimation, disease and dispersal of native plants and animals. The more that humans encroach on naturally pristine areas, the more likely that area will eventually recede, naturally or by force of “progress.”

The removal of outdoor tobacco advertisements posed three questions for the researchers to consider:

  1. Since tobacco executives are not likely to decrease their advertising budget, where are they spending their money now?
  2. How is tobacco advertising on billboards executed in other parts of the world that do not have regulations?
  3. What is the effect of removing tobacco billboards?

As this study was published just one year after the ban went into effect, it did not get the chance to answer these questions. However, studies in many states have shown that youth smoking has dropped steadily over the last decade. The Center for Disease Control released a study that showed 18% of high school students smoked cigarettes in 2011, down from 19.5% in 2009 and way down from a high of 36% in 1997! In Hawaii alone, the number of youths who smoked dropped from 25% in 2000 to less than 9% last year – amazing progress to be sure. Even though we cannot definitively link these trends to the absence of tobacco-related billboards, we can assume that coupled with education and awareness, reducing the number of interactions with advertisements that glamorize smoking is certainly beneficial to curbing the habit in our youth.

As far as the rest of the world goes, it seems likely that tobacco executives will shift their advertising dollars overseas to promote this “western” ideal of being cool by smoking cigarettes in emerging markets with less regulation. The industry has also shifted focus to a new set of products that are just as addictive as cigarettes. Products such as Snus have become popular – a bagged tobacco that rests in the mouth and doesn’t require spitting as does ‘dip’ or ‘chew.’ Since it is still a tobacco product, Snus cannot be advertised in plain view – but the question remains who it is really marketed to in the plethora of other advertising mediums the industry still can access.

Justin Harmon

Staff Writer

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