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Earlier this year, one of the leading cigarette manufacturers seemed to be making special efforts to exploit the advantages afforded by hesitant public policies and the absence of serious controls on the publicity and sale of tobacco in Uruguay. In the capital, Montevideo, a new advertising campaign appeared for Montana cigarettes, using large posters in almost all the city’s bus stops. They showed a young couple who appeared to be no more than 15 or 16 years old, looking carefree and contented, the epitome of wellbeing in full Montevidean style.
The campaign introduced the Montana brand to the market—packs of 10 cigarettes cost just US$0.30 c, the price of a small bag of potato chips. The advertising would clearly appeal to pre-adolescents who have recently begun secondary school, and the price would be easily affordable to them.
Tobacco companies sponsor the majority of cultural and sports activities followed by young people. They are even the permanent, official sponsors of the multimedia company that owns the television rights of the national soccer team, as well as sponsoring the players themselves.
Recent research shows not only that smoking prevalence is high among 13–15 year olds (24.1%), but also that while only 35% of 13 year olds have tried tobacco, by the age of 15, the large majority (68%) have tried it. One of every four of these young smokers says that they smoke daily. Young people who are socially and economically disadvantaged tend to be particularly affected. There are few real impediments to prevent children buying tobacco—the legal age law was cited as an impediment by only 7% of young respondents in the same research, and two thirds of children who smoke reported that they could buy cigarettes freely.
In Uruguay it will be increasingly difficult to promote health and to speak frankly with young people about addictive substances unless a responsible brake is put on the tobacco promotion directed at them. The Montana campaign is just one example of the “hidden curriculum” presented to young people through mass communications. To the extent that supply largely determines demand, the educational task will only be effective if it is backed with coherent measures to regulate not only access to cigarettes, but exposure of young people to tobacco and tobacco promotion. The work of ants that is going on in schools and in homes is innocuous in the face of what the cigarette company elephants are doing.