by Marsha Rakestraw

My first memory of smoking is when I was hanging out with my much older brother and his friends, who found a pack of cigarettes and decided to give the forbidden sticks of mystery a try.

To make sure I wouldn’t “tattle,” my brother backed me up against a wall and made me take a puff or two, thus, in his eyes, making me as “guilty” as the rest of them.

I was about 8. (I wouldn’t have told anyway, Bob. But thanks for the early exposure to lung cancer.)

Back then, smoking wasn’t considered a big deal.

Celebs did it. Parents did it in front of their kids. Respectable business owners and church-goers did it.

Now that the link between smoking and health hazards is abundantly clear, you’d think that people would refuse even one more puff.

But between its addictiveness, cultural pressures, creative advertising, and now new products like e-cigarettes, a lot of people still smoke. According to the World Health Organization (WHO):

  • There are more than 1 billion smokers in the world.
  • Tobacco kills around 6 million people each year. More than 5 million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use while more than 600 000 are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke.
  • Nearly 80% of the world’s 1 billion smokers live in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Most people start smoking before the age of 18; a quarter of those start before the age of 10.

And where is most of this happening?

In developing countries.

On May 31, the World Health Organization is sponsoring World No Tobacco Day. Cities all around the world are participating, bringing awareness to issues about tobacco and smoking.

The smoking gun of tobacco use provides a great platform for exploring the influence of media and advertising, as well as the impact of tobacco and tobacco products on people, animals, and the earth.

Since most people start smoking before they’re 18, and youth can be especially susceptible to media and advertising, helping young people think critically about tobacco products and tobacco ads can help them unravel the messages, tactics, and strategies used to encourage people to adopt a lifelong, potentially-fatal habit.

There are numerous websites that offer tobacco ads and spoofs of ads. Just search for “tobacco ads” or “tobacco advertising.”

Two examples:

Tobacco Free Kids has a gallery of tobacco ads from around the world, including from magazines, billboards, displays, etc. Ads can be searched by country, company, brand or ad type.

If you want to compare those to earlier ads, Truth in Advertising has a collection of cigarette ads from the 1940s and 50s.

In addition to thinking critically about the ads they’re exposed to, young people can explore how tobacco companies and their public relations divisions work. For example:

  • How much do tobacco companies spend on advertising and marketing each year? How has that changed over the years?
  • What countries do they target most heavily?
  • What demographics do they most heavily target (e.g., age, race, socioeconomic level)?
  • What means do they use to attract youth to smoking?
  • To whom would a company whose product can cause death and disease for its consumers look to find new customers?
  • Why is a company that markets products known to be harmful (even fatal) so successful at recruiting more customers?
  • How have e-cigarettes affected smoking habits? How have they affected companies that produce tobacco products?

And, tobacco use isn’t just a health and human rights issue.

In addition to all the animals in laboratories who are still subjected to testing to prove/disprove the benefits/harmfulness of tobacco, and in addition to all the animals in close proximity to humans who are exposed to secondhand smoke, plenty of wildlife inadvertently take up the smoking habit (and sometimes die) by eating butts that they mistake for food (and thus ingest all the toxic chemicals they contain).

And, in addition to being a giant eyesore, butts contain toxins that can wash into our waterways, and the toxic smoke pollutes the air.

Tobacco growing, curing, and packaging also contribute to deforestation. And the production and packaging create an enormous amount of waste.

And then there are the numerous issues around e-cigarettes, including the impact of advertising on teens and the inadvertent poisonings of children.

World No Tobacco Day provides a great chance to help young people adopt a healthy habit: thinking critically and creatively and making choices that do the most good and least harm for all.