For many, smoking continues to be seen as a common bond for members of an exclusive group, part of an entrenched social norm. Supporting that mindset are tobacco companies that invest mightily to keep that smoking culture alive today.
A recent campaign by the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to smoking cessation among youth and young adults,” revealed “tobacco industry documents made public as evidence in litigation,” according to HowStuffWorks.com. Within the documents, they uncovered internal tobacco industry references to members of the U.S. military as “the plums that are here to be plucked.”
What are the results of the tobacco industry’s harvest? Smoking costs the Department of Defense more than $1.6 billion per year, taking into account tobacco-related hospitalization, medical care and lost workdays. For far too many young men and women, military service has left them with an unshakable addiction to a substance that has been found to harm nearly every organ system in the body. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more Americans have died from smoking than in all the wars the United States has fought.
What we are learning is that teenagers do not see “vaping” an e-cigarette as harmful. The majority of teenagers vape for the flavors, not realizing that they are inhaling nicotine, a highly addictive substance. Many teenagers picking up an e-cigarette have never smoked a traditional cigarette and now, according to current research, have become four times more likely to do so. This current trend has been successful in putting nicotine in every classroom across America. As we were recently reminded by a U.S. Surgeon General report, in just over a year, this substance’s rate of use has doubled.
While it is true that nicotine is not the major cause of tobacco-related disease, it is the addictive chemical in both tobacco and e-cigarettes that binds the user to the product. At its worst, it can create an addiction where some lose their capacity to make a free choice. It seems clear that e-cigarette use among young people is associated with a progression toward greater cigarette use.
As I said last week, the recent announcement by Altria, the leading U.S. cigarette manufacturer and parent company of Philip Morris, should make clear the nexus between traditional cigarettes and e-cigarettes. The company recently announced it is making a $12.8 billion investment in e-cigarette maker Juul and plans to aggressively help promote the e-cigarette brand. This investment gives the tobacco industry direct access to a new pipeline of millions of young e-cigarette users and a growth market for their tobacco products.
If Big Tobacco is expert in anything, it is how to surgically aim alluring advertising and packaging at young people and capitalize on trends to reap new lifelong customers. If we are to be successful in combating the public health threat this vaping epidemic represents, then media messages must begin to offer a different social perception: from “Smoking e-cigarettes is cool” to “You are being played.”