Industry 'Youth Tobacco Prevention' More PR Than Prevention?

Neil Osterweil

November 15, 2013

BOSTON — In a case of life imitating art, a major tobacco maker, claiming to be a socially responsible corporation, is running a "youth tobacco prevention" program that critics say is an effort to "shift blame for addiction and disease to children and parents."

In the satiric 2005 film Thank You for Smoking, a slick spokesman for Big Tobacco tells a US Senate committee that "It is the job of every parent to warn their children of all the dangers of the world, including cigarettes, so that one day when they get older they can choose for themselves."

In real life, RJ Reynolds, maker and marketer of 8 cigarette brands and a "modern, smoke free tobacco" (oral tobacco pouch), runs a youth-oriented public information campaign aimed at educators and families with the ostensible aim of preventing children from ever becoming consumers of its products.

The freely distributed materials advise teachers to tell children that "choices are freely made, even if we feel pressure. Only we can be held responsible for our choices and their consequences."

The campaign "Right Decisions, Right Now" (RDNR) offers "materials to middle schools to help educators address the important issue of making good decisions, even if peer pressure and example might suggest a different decision," according to the RDNR Web site.

Corporate Responsibility?

 
If they were really being responsible, they'd just go out of business. Lissy Friedman
 

"All companies, all industries, use corporate social responsibility to improve their image and to increase sales; this is not unique to the tobacco industry. But what is unique about the tobacco industry using corporate social responsibility is that it's completely incompatible with the product they produce. If they were really being responsible, they'd just go out of business," said Lissy Friedman, JD, senior staff attorney at the Public Health Advocacy Institute in Boston, here at the American Public Health Association (APHA) 141st Annual Meeting.

Friedman and colleagues pored over tobacco industry documents, looking for clues to the underlying motives of the cigarette companies.

As part of their individual and collective settlements with US states, the 4 major US tobacco companies agreed to create and fund programs to prevent youth smoking. Most of the programs, Friedman said, were "laughably ham-handed, and fell away." The RDNR program, however, has persevered.

However, instead of achieving the purported goal of getting kids to shun cigarettes and chewing tobacco, "several studies have shown that tobacco industry youth smoking-prevention programs are ineffective, and most likely purposefully ineffective, and studies have shown that these youth smoking prevention programs actually increase the favorable view of both the tobacco companies and smoking," she said.

The RDNR curriculum was written for RJ Reynolds by Lifetime Learning Systems, Inc, which in company documents describes its educational programs as "marketing tools."

'Profit Zone Activity'

"Your product or point of view becomes the focus of discussion in the classroom or senior center, the centerpiece in a dynamic process that generates long-term awareness and lasting attitudinal change," according to promotional materials from the company published in 1997.

A 1999 memo from an employee of RJ Reynolds' public relations department called youth smoking "a profit zone activity that will further our objective of reducing youth smoking while publicly positioning us as a creative, ethical company."

An RDNR brochure called "Help Your Child Be Tobacco Free," downloaded by Medscape Medical News from the RDNR Web site, mentions the health consequences for adolescents who smoke as "shortness of breath, phlegm production, coughing, and wheezing." The brochure also notes that "Young people who smoke are likely to be less physically fit than non-smokers," and that "Teen smokers are more likely than their tobacco-free friends to have panic attacks, anxiety disorders, and depression."

Cancer is mentioned exactly 3 times in the 12-page booklet and is only listed after with other hazards of tobacco use.

The New "Denormal"

Friedman notes that RDRN has partnered with the Boys Scout of America to offer a "Trail of Courage" merit badge imprinted with the name of the campaign. In addition, Miss America Pageant competitors in at least 29 states make appearances at middle schools to teach the RDRN curriculum and to distribute RDRN posters, buttons, and other materials, and America's Baseball Camps Inc now includes the RDRN logo prominently on its letterhead.

"What RJ Reynolds is doing with this curriculum is they're trying to gain legitimacy: They want a seat at the table. They want to be seen as a normal corporation, not a merchant of death," she said.

Public health advocates need to "denormalize" the tobacco industry and curb corporate bad behavior, Friedman told Medscape Medical News.

"Denormalization is a counter-marketing campaign that removes the legitimacy that the tobacco industry is seeking through its corporate social responsibility shenanigans," she said.

A public health advocate who was not involved in the study tells Medscape Medical News that for all of its resources, Big Tobacco is not invincible.

"We did beat, in part, the Goliath of the tobacco industry, and I think we have to go back and mobilize the same way we did on clean indoor air policies. This is still a demon industry," said Janet Williams, MA, cochair of the Illinois Coalition Against Tobacco.

"We need to remind ourselves that tobacco is still the number one preventable cause of death and disease in the United States," she said.

The study was funded by the Public Health Advocacy Institute. Friedman and Williams have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

American Public Health Association (APHA) 141st Annual Meeting: Abstract 279511. Presented November 4, 2013.

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