Tobacco Companies Targeting Youth

If youth smoking rates continue without change, 1 in every 13 Americans under the age of 18 will die early from a smoking-related illness.

Youth under the age of 18 are the customers who keep the tobacco companies in business. Big Tobacco cannot afford to target any other age group; studies have shown that adults over the age of 18 are much less likely to pick up the habit.

Despite all the accusations, lawsuits and regulations, tobacco companies still target underage youth. Several lawsuits have revealed tobacco companies see youth as young as 13 as their key market. The tobacco companies specifically study the smoking habits of teenagers and develop products and campaigns aimed at teenagers.

According to an internal quote from the RJ Reynolds tobacco company in 1976,

“Evidence is now available to indicate that the 14–18-year-old group is an increasing segment of the smoking population. [RJ Reynolds Tobacco] must soon establish a successful new brand in this market if our position in the industry is to be maintained in the long term.” (Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids)

The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement

The 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement was the result of a court case between forty-six states, four U.S territories, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia and the four largest tobacco companies — Phillip Morris USA, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, and Lorillard.

The States wanted the tobacco companies to repay them the costs of treating ill and dying tobacco smokers. The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement determined that tobacco companies had to pay the states and placed restrictions on the tobacco companies in terms of advertising.

As a result tobacco companies are not allowed to do the following:

  • Directly or indirectly target youth
  • Use cartoon characters
  • Display any kind of outdoor advertisements including billboards and transit ads that are not very close to tobacco retail stores
  • Place products in entertainment media
  • Give free tobacco samples
  • Give gifts to youth in exchange for proof of purchase
  • Use branded merchandise
  • Use brand name sponsorships

The court also forbade tobacco companies from misleading consumers about the health risks of their products including actions such as:

  • Lobbying against tobacco control legislation and administrative rules
  • Suppressing health related research
  • Misrepresenting the health risks of tobacco

Despite the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement and all its limitations, tobacco companies have continued targeting youth.

Tobacco Companies Targeting Youth

Even after a court case where tobacco companies were found to be intentionally targeting youth in direct defiance of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, the tobacco companies have continued to aim their advertisements at a younger population.

  • They advertise at shopping malls that are near schools and playgrounds
  • They send mail to youth without first verifying if the recipients are over 18
  • They advertise in magazines that are known to have teen subscribers. For example, the RJ Reynolds company placed ads in 24 magazines and 9 of these were found to have a total teen readership of 12.9 million
  • They place advertisements where only children will see them; a 2011 study in California found the proportion of stores with advertising at or below 3 feet increased from 14% to 34%
  • They increase advertisements near candy
  • They target even more specific audiences with flavored cigarettes. Advertisements for menthol cigarettes are placed near California high schools with a large black population

Tobacco companies vehemently deny that they market their products to children yet are strongly against any laws that might prevent youth from obtaining cigarettes. They oppose such policies as higher tobacco taxes, smoke-free laws, and funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs. Implementation of such policies would do a great deal of work in protecting today’s youth. If tobacco companies have really stopped marketing to children, they would not be so adamant that these polices fail.


E-cigarette manufacturers are following in the same footsteps as the big tobacco companies. Advertisements for e-cigarettes have increased almost exponentially. In just four years, spending has gone from $5.6 million to $115.3 million. According to a 2014 survey, these e-cigarette advertisements have reached 18.3 million youth.

A 1999 Camel ad vs. a modern e-cigarette ad

E-cigarettes are very appealing to youth, especially because of the attractive flavoring. More youth smoke electronic cigarettes than they do traditional cigarettes. While it seems to be a positive that children are smoking fewer traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes still contain nicotine and kids should not be using tobacco products in any form. Also, e-cigarette use can easily lead to traditional cigarette use. A study from the CDC shows youth who smoke e-cigarettes are twice as likely to try traditional cigarettes as youth who have never smoked.

The number of e-cigarette users among youth has been increasing as well. In 2014 e-cigarette use for high schoolers was 13.4% and for middle schoolers it was 3.9%.

Just one year later in 2015 the rate for high schoolers was 16.0% and for middle schoolers was 5.3%.

Much of this increase in usage can be attributed to advertisements directly targeting youth. E-cigarette companies use TV and magazines to sell their product along with celebrity endorsements, and sports and music sponsorships. This has been quite effective as 82% of 12–17 year olds in 2015 had seen e-cigarette advertising.

A 2016 study found that the more youth were exposed to e-cigarette advertising, the more likely they were to try e-cigarettes.


Tobacco companies purposely target youth to develop good and loyal customers. Individuals are more likely to try cigarettes for the first time when they are young than when they are adults. Tobacco companies know this and have been viciously targeting youth for years despite many efforts to stop them.

Advertising to youth is dangerous. It puts children as young as 13 at risk of dying from a smoking related illness later in life. Children should not be unfairly targeted at an age when they are still developing good decision-making skills. We need to protect our youth from the clutches of Big Tobacco to keep them as safe and healthy as possible.


Tobacco Company Marketing to Kids

Tobacco Free Maine

CDC: Youth and Tobacco Use

Master Settlement Agreement

Master Settlement Agreement Overview

Tobacco Companies Cannot Survive Without Kids

Electronic Cigarettes and Youth

Trends Infographic

CDC: E-cigarettes and Youth

Stanford School of Medicine

Sara Garzia