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Tobacco Companies Find Loophole In Settlement Stance On Outdoor Ads

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

It has been years since tobacco companies vowed to stop targeting children with slick ads featuring cartoon characters, but new research suggests that children remain in the crosshairs of the industry’s advertising strategy.

Tobacco advertisers use multiple posters, banners and fliers, often in close proximity, to get the message out, according to a study in the September issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

About a decade ago, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America pledged voluntarily to eliminate ads for alcohol and tobacco within 500 feet of schools, playgrounds and churches.

In 1998, tobacco industry giants accepted the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement to support antismoking efforts, cease use of cartoon characters in cigarette ads and eliminate tobacco billboards and bus bench ads. The agreement ultimately involved five leading tobacco companies — Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard and Liggett. It changed the way those five makers operated, but it did not stop the ads altogether.

“You have these small media, posted multiple times in multiple locations,” said Molly Scott, lead study author and a Rand Corporation researcher. “These are not huge billboards, so they [tobacco companies] are complying. But in the big sense of things, not so much.”

The researchers evaluated compliance by observing outdoor advertisements for one year during 2004 and 2005, in 106 census tracts in pre-Katrina New Orleans, as well as 114 census tracts in Los Angeles County.

In Los Angeles, 25 percent of tobacco ads and 37 percent of alcohol ads were located within 500 feet of a school, playground or church, the study found. About 20 percent of tobacco and alcohol ads in Louisiana were within 500 feet, where, 26 percent of tract residents were underage. In Los Angeles County tracts, 28 percent were minors: No big contrasts there.

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Alcohol and tobacco ads diverged sharply in terms of their size and frequency.

Of 130 alcohol ads observed in Los Angeles, more than half were either extra-large billboards (14 feet by 48 feet) or average size (12 feet by 24 feet). In Louisiana, 61 percent of the alcohol ads were average size (12 feet by 24 feet).

Of 81 tobacco billboards observed in Los Angeles, 99 percent were posters, banners or fliers, and 27 percent of those appeared two to four times in the same location. In Louisiana, 25 percent of 154 tobacco ads were small billboards, while 71 percent were posters, fliers or banners. About 66 percent appeared two to four times in the same location.

“Maybe one of the unintended consequences of the MSA [the master settlement agreement] is more local targeting,” Scott says.

Although not a spokesperson for the tobacco industry Agreement, Stephen Freitas is chief marketing officer for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. He said that store owners could place some small advertisements — without brand name attachments — announcing that cigarettes are on sale. He added that the organization does not specifically consider banners and posters outdoor advertising.

As far as the advertising industry’s efforts, “We’re not aware of members deliberately or aggressively violating the voluntary pledge,” Freitas said.

The study results do not come as a surprise to Cheryl Perry, regional dean for the School of Public Health at the University of Texas, in Austin. Although, she said, “I was not aware that the tobacco industry was using small ads near each other to — in essence — make one big ad.”

Perry added, “Our own work in Chicago showed substantial numbers of ads near elementary schools, particularly schools with Hispanic populations.”

In the future, Scott says, “one of the things we’d like to do is look at [effects of] exposure to ads on health behaviors.”