Has the concept of truth in advertising gone up in smoke?

Where there is money to be made, there are unethical business practices. Unfortunately, there is a lot of money to be made in tobacco sales. Yes, where there is smoke, there is fire.

There seems to be an ongoing awkward dance between the government and tobacco companies. Government tries to limit the advertising, use, and sale of cigarettes, and tobacco finds loopholes and new measures to reach healthy lungs everywhere.

The latest dance step is less than subtle. A new law came into effect July 1 disallowing the sale of candy flavoured cigarillos that appeal to children, in enticing flavours like vanilla, grape, and tangerine, but tobacco companies have just flavoured a smaller cigar instead.

One has to question whether the companies could have possibly missed the intent of the law, and actually thought that what they were doing was not a thinly veiled tango. The move has been called “reprehensible” by a Health Canada spokesperson.

Going back to March 2009, Ontario tobacco farmers received over $285 million to transition to other crops or ventures, but according to the Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, 10 to 20 per cent of those tax dollars subsidized farms that continue to grow tobacco…and the dance continues.

Restricting advertising (including banning the Joe Camel cartoon character, and stopping advertising near schools and playgrounds), banning smoking in public places, and in cars (thanks Sault Ste. MPP David Orazietti), prohibiting the sale of cigarettes to minors and storing cigarettes behind walls in convenience stores are some of the measures to curb smoking. Unfortunately it isn’t enough. Canada has approximately five million smokers, a number that had stayed the same since 2005. Since 37,000 a year are dying due to tobacco use, and multitudes kick the habit annually, it is sad to see that there are always young pink lungs to take their place. The World Health Organization says that by 2020, tobacco will cause seven million deaths worldwide. It is considered an epidemic.

I applaud the Ontario government for creating programs to stop youth from smoking, especially after seeing that on their website that it costs the Ontario economy $1.6 billion in health-care costs and $4.4 billion in productivity losses. But how much is being paid into the economy in tobacco revenue? Even with a positive balance, what are the ethical considerations around allowing the sale of a product that is known to be highly addictive and cause thousands and thousands of death each year? How much revenue is one death worth?

My favourite campaign on the unethical nature of tobacco advertising and sales is at www.shardsoglass.com and www.thetruth.com

The commercial states: “What if all companies sold products like Big Tobacco” and uses a glass-shard-filled popsicle factory as a parody for cigarettes: “We now agree there is no such thing as a safe glass freeze pop. The only proven way to reduce health risks of our glass pops is to not eat them.”

The website elaborates further: “At Shards O’ Glass Freeze Pops, we believe in doing the right thing. Our products are intended for adults and as such, we only market to them. While some studies suggest that nearly 80 per cent of our adult customers started eating Shards O’ Glass Freeze Pops before the age of 18, the intent of our marketing efforts is to encourage customers to switch glass pop brands and not to get young people to start licking. In fact, we’ve introduced a million dollar youth prevention campaign with the highly effective slogan “Licking Glass Pops as a teen? Then you’re missing the point!”

There is also a great social experiment series of hidden camera interviews of candidates with a fake recruiter, asking them a series of questions to determine if they have what it takes to be a tobacco executive. There is also a test for site visitors asking that same question, including a typing test to type the phrase: “I could sell a product that kills someone every 6.5 seconds,” which then buzzes every 6.5 seconds to show another person dying.

What if every product sold its wares like tobacco? Who says they aren’t?

There are other industries targeting children in their advertising, saying they are not, including fast food. Shouldn’t Ronald and Happy Meals with toys be banned? Would supersized meals been phased out without the help of a friendly documentary? Maybe salt and trans fats will become the new tobacco?

On a grander note, what is a worker’s responsibility to the consumers of their products? If you help grow tobacco are you not just as responsible? How about if you are a student intern that takes on a high paying job with big tobacco? Imagine if tobacco couldn’t get staff willing to farm, package, and flog their products. Ethical questions should be raised and we have to ask if the concept of truth in advertising has gone completely up in smoke.

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