Like most of my peers, I grew up in a generation of public service announcements, school assemblies, and parental warnings about the dangers of smoking. Despite this, I still found myself under the influence of movies and TV shows featuring effortlessly cool, rebellious main characters clutching Marlboros between their yellowed fingertips, blowing smoke rings without a care. I ended up smoking my first cigarette at age 13, and butting out my last only a year and a half ago.
Despite widespread legal and social rejection, in Canada smoking continues to be the most prevalent among young adults between 20 to 35 years old. A 2015 report on tobacco trends in Canada by the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact showed that around 5% of smokers were aged 14-16, while 18.5% were 19 years old. However, that same report showed that the majority of smokers in these age categories reportedly tried to quit at least once in the past month, with attempts to stop slowing down as their ages increased. The most common reason for giving up cigarettes was the concern around health risks.
It’s clear that while young people continue to smoke, we’re well aware of the effects that it can have on our lives. So if we understand the consequences, why did we even start?
Researchers from the Université de Montréal École de Santé Publique found that, for youth between the ages of 18-24, three major risk factors associated with beginning to smoke were impulsivity, poor grades in school, and regular alcohol use. A recent literature review published in the American Journal of Preventine Medicine found that multiple studies pointed to sensation seeking or rebellious behaviour, receptivity to tobacco advertising, having family or friends who smoke, and exposure to films were predictors for smoking. It might be no surprise, then, that the same review found that children with high self-esteem and high parental monitoring/supervision were the least likely to smoke.
In a time when mental illness in young adults is on the rise, with pressures to be and do more with less support and resources, it’s no wonder that many of us end up developing a habit that we’ve been warned is dangerous from a very young age.
Starting with the Tobacco Act in 1988, which prohibits tobacco companies from advertising in Canada (with the exception of print publications with a readership of a minimum of 85% adults), the government has continued to try to prevent and end smoking in youth. In 2009, amendments to the Act made the sale of cigarillos and flavoured cigarettes illegal; a year before that, they found that these products were especially popular among youth, and the addition of flavours such as chocolate or fruit made it enticing to pick up the habit.
“In a time when mental illness in young adults is on the rise, with pressures to be and do more with less support and resources, it’s no wonder that many of us end up developing a habit that we’ve been warned is dangerous from a very young age.”
Almost immediately after the ban of cigarillos and flavored cigarettes, e-cigarettes began to be sold – which were promoted as a healthier alternative to smoking. Now tobacco is becoming replaced with flavoured oils – but they still contain nicotine and other harmful chemicals such as carcinogens. In March 2009, Health Canada issued an advisory warning about the use of these devices, as their effects hadn’t yet been evaluated for their safety.
Health Canada also cautioned stakeholders that products intended to administer inhaled doses of nicotine are considered ‘new drugs,’ making them a regulated product under the Food and Drugs Act. However, according to the website QuitNow.ca, this criteria created a loophole for marketing campaigns: Because the advisory only applied to products intended to administer nicotine, e-cigarettes that don’t claim to contain nicotine are legally allowed to be sold in Canada.
There are other ways that companies have taken advantage of these ambiguous laws. According to a study on electronic cigarettes in the Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings, over $2 million is spent annually on e-cigarette advertising in the media in both the United States and Canada alone. The article points specifically to the use of Twitter and YouTube as a means to spread the message that e-cigarettes are safe and appealing to use – but this is same kind of message generations before us received about traditional cigarettes, where ads boasted that even doctors smoked them.
A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published January of 2016 found that e-cigarette ads tend to use many of the same themes as traditional cigarette ads, namely independence, rebellion, and sex. The effects are ultimately the same: Advertising that uses these themes have been shown to increase the likelihood that young people will start smoking.
It’s clear the battle to prevent smoking in youth is an ongoing fight. While the North American government struggles to keep up with the constantly evolving industry, the media continues to find loopholes in laws that prohibit their advertisement. So while more young people are trading traditional smokes for e-cigarettes, believing that they’re a healthier alternative, they’re actually doing what generations have done in the past: Believing the advertising that’s marketed to them.
There are options to help you quit cigarettes – whether traditional or electronic – such as Nicorette in a gum, inhaler, spray or patch – but these are just bandage solutions that are marketed to you the same way cigarettes are. They still pump nicotine and other harmful chemicals into your bloodstream, and they’re still just as addictive. So what should you do if you want to quit but can’t seem to stop? As someone who has experience, my reasoning didn’t come from health reasons but from knowing that my girlfriend didn’t want to kiss me if I continued – and deciding to pick her over smoking motivated me to stop cold-turkey. Perhaps in that sense, the marketing that appeals to our sexuality in getting us to try cigarettes works even better in getting us to stop: As much as advertisements will continue to tell us otherwise, more and more young people are seeing that smoking isn’t sexy.
Published in the Winter 2017 issue. Read the rest of the issue for FREE here.
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