Do ads really get kids to start smoking?

The infamous Marlboro Man ads came under fire in the late '90s after many claimed the character led to kids smoking. See more drug pictures.
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Conversations about smoking as a public health problem often gravitate toward the topic of tobacco advertising, especially when the discussion focuses on kids and cigarette ads. The subject was a very visible point in the states-versus-big-tobacco lawsuits of the late 1990s, as plaintiffs argued that tobacco ads not only encouraged more people to smoke, but also specifically encouraged children to take up cigarettes.

Do tobacco ads really cause kids to start smoking? Were characters like the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel designed to target children, rather than the adults the tobacco companies claimed they intended to reach with their ads? The answer isn't so simple.

Research studies can give us a sense of the power of tobacco ads, as well as the complexity of linking them to underage smoking. A survey published in February 2011 noted that several countries saw their population-wide smoking rates drop after they banned tobacco ads. That same study, however, noted that milder restrictions, such as limiting how close outdoor tobacco ads can be to schools, had little effect on underage smoking. The study noted that, even at a young age, children often have the reasoning and memory to retain catchy ads -- in essence, the message from one effective tobacco ad can stay with a child long after he or she sees it [source: Willemsen].

The power of tobacco ads is clear, but a murkier question is whether companies specifically targeted their ads at children and young teens. Testimony to both sides of that argument was heard in abundance during the tobacco trials of the 1990s. But a key point makes the planned intent of tobacco ads irrelevant: Adolescents may view ads designed to target adults and be more receptive to them simply because of their age. Teens, due to a number of factors, could be predisposed to be the perfect targets of tobacco advertising. Read on to learn more.