Do ads really get kids to start smoking?

A Perfect Smoke Storm

Think about popular tobacco ads of the past, such as the Marlboro Man. A rugged, handsome character stands in a breathtaking landscape, cigarette dangling casually from his lips. In the scene, we have seen the results of his day's hard work: a herd of corralled cattle, or perhaps a campsite set up as the sun was setting. An image like this is attractive to adults looking for an escape from their office jobs and cubicles. But the same type of ad could be nearly irresistible to a teenager.

Teens want to be cool; it's in their hormones. The period of adolescence is marked by an extreme sensitivity to peer opinions. This makes sense: The years between childhood and adulthood are the time when humans transition from helplessness and dependence on parents to independence and the ability to make decisions for themselves. It's a difficult time filled with anxiety and uncertainty, and many teens look to their friends, as well as media influences, to gain a sense of right and wrong, effective and incompetent, and cool and uncool. If the message that smoking is glamorous, acceptable or an exciting break from the norm lands in this sea of confusing desires and messages, it's all too easy for an adolescent to turn the Marlboro Man into a hero, or Joe Camel's cartoon exploits into a desirable realm in which one can escape the pressure of daily life [source: Watson]. This is largely why both characters were banned in the late '90s.

Whether smoking advertisements are targeted at children or not, then, becomes a moot point. Simply projecting the message -- in any form of modern media -- that a brand of cigarettes is glamorous or desirable means the message will likely reach a child or adolescent. And according to research findings, odds are that at least some of those children will absorb the message -- not that one brand of cigarettes is better than another, but that smoking in general is good, and a desirable activity.

For more information on smoking, check out the links below.

Related Articles


  • American Heart Association. "Cigarette Smoking Statistics." 2008. National Center for Health Statistics. (May 2, 2011)
  • Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "Facts & Issues." 2011. (May 2, 2011)
  • Watson, N.A. et al. "Filthy or fashionable? Young people's perceptions of smoking in the media." Health Education Research. July 23, 2002. (May 2, 2011)
  • Willemsen, Marc C. and Boudewijn de Blij. "Tobacco advertising." Union for International Cancer Control. Sept. 5, 2011. (April 26, 2011)