One of the longstanding fallacies promoted by the anti-tobacco movement is that tobacco use is solely driven by advertising and marketing by large multinational companies, also known as “Big Tobacco.”
This is a weak claim because there is little independent evidence to validate it. First, a historical perspective: Tobacco was originally cultivated only in the Western Hemisphere and was used by native Americans for thousands of years (here). In 1492, Columbus discovered the new world, and tobacco. In the short space of 100 years, tobacco was being consumed by people in nearly every corner of the globe. This phenomenal explosion happened at a time when a trans-oceanic voyage took months. In the 16th Century Big Tobacco did not exist; consumption was driven then – as consumption is largely driven now – by the human brain’s powerful affinity for tobacco and nicotine.
While it’s true that tobacco has been enjoyed by people all over the world for hundreds of years, does Big Tobacco drive contemporary consumption? To answer that question we can turn to Federal Trade Commission reports on advertising, promotion and sales of smokeless tobacco products (here) and cigarettes (here) in the U.S.
The chart on the left shows advertising and promotional expenditures for moist snuff and chewing tobacco and the amount sold in the U.S. from 1986 to 2010. At first glance, it looks like the increase in moist snuff consumption from 36 million pounds in 1986 to 93 million in 2010, is related to the increase in advertising and promotion. But moist snuff also benefited from a sharp decline in chewing tobacco sales, as I noted in my published study of smokeless tobacco use in 2000 and 2005 (abstract here, discussed in my blog here).
The second chart on the left shows advertising and promotional expenditures for cigarettes and the number of cigarettes sold in the U.S. from 1975 to 2010. During that time, cigarette consumption dropped almost continuously from 600 billion per year to 280 billion. In contrast, cigarette advertising and promotion increased continuously from $490 million in 1975, to a peak of $15.2 billion in 2003; that was followed by a steep decline to $8.05 billion in 2010.
What do these results show? Cigarette consumption was declining in spite of substantial increases in advertising and promotion. In 2004, cigarette manufacturers finally realized that they could not influence this trend, but anti-tobacco forces still refuse to believe it.
If tobacco advertising drives consumption, then Sweden should be nearly tobacco-free because tobacco ads were banned completely in that country in 1994 (here). The prevalence of tobacco use in Sweden after 18 advertising-free years is similar to that in other developed countries. The Swedish tobacco harm reduction story is not exemplary because of an advertising ban, but because of the availability and use of vastly safer snus.
The Swedish advertising experience will not be repeated in the U.S., but Americans will continue to adopt Swedish tobacco harm reduction methods.