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For decades the tobacco industry publicly denied that it was intensely interested in promoting smoking by children and teenagers. Any first year undergraduate in marketing  of course understands that any industry professing to have no interest in grooming those who were not yet using its products, but might well do so, would need its commercial head read.

Imagine a Volkswagen executive explaining that VW’s business plan was entirely built on persuading existing car owners to stay with VW or switch to it from their current make of car, and then going out of his way to explain that his company had not the slightest interest in selling cars to first-time car buyers, many of whom would be newly licensed. Major shareholders would run such a person out of the building.

But this has been the stock response always given by the tobacco industry for decades whenever accused of targeting kids. The shaming power of the predatory Piped Piper metaphor, where malevolent figures play beguiling (marketing) tunes to impressionable children, causing them to follow the Piper to their deaths, has always seen the industry, hand-on-heart deny any interest in kids in what is the longest-running lie in the commercial world.

With the tsunami of many millions of internal tobacco industry documents that were released under the terms of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, the farcical denials by the tobacco industry about its salivating interest in children came to a public end for more than a decade, when the industry took the decision to rarely speak in public anymore. Instead it lobbied privately and via third party acolytes knowing it would be humiliated publicly by the production of countless of its internal documents that showed it was knowingly lying.

These internal documents were a potent, undeniable truth serum that the industry never expected to be forced to drink in public.

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But today, they are again back in the denial game as they mount a new white horse of harm reduction that they unsucessfully rode in the past with filters, “lights and milds” and “reduced carcinogen” cigarettes. Despite the core twin pitches of ecigarette hype  (that they are all but of benign risk, and that they are spectacularly effective at helping smokers quit), ecig manufacturers still can’t bring themselves to stop saying that ecigs are only for adult consumption.  Along with the independent vaping industry (which is predictably being steadily hoovered up by Big Tobacco companies), we are seeing a near-complete reprise of the oleaginous public   “these are not for children” declarations from Big Tobacco and its new apologists. The only difference is that today it’s the same fake arguments being applied to  ecigarettes.

There was a huge amount of research published about denials about designs on kids in the early 2000s. This powerpoint set of 72 slides by Stacy Carter, originally published on the Tobacco Control journal’s website, is probably the single best catalogue of industry duplicity about kids and smoking that I know of.

Look through it and keep it handy the next time you hear industry employees or stooges assuring interviewers that children vaping is the furthest thing from their minds.  See how many bingo points you can score by matching today’s lies with those the tobacco industry used in public prior to 1998.

Here is a selection of some of these papers on youth by a research group who worked with me on a four year US National Institutes of Health grant (2001-2004) looking at industry document revelations about youth smoking in Australia and Asia.

  1. Assunta N, Chapman S. A mire of highly subjective and ineffective voluntary guidelines: tobacco industry efforts to thwart tobacco control in Malaysia. Tobacco Control 2004;13 (Suppl) 2):ii43–50
  2. Assunta M, Chapman S. Industry sponsored youth smoking prevention programme in Malaysia: a case study in duplicity. Tobacco Control 2004; 13 (Suppl 2):ii51–57.
  3. Knight J, Chapman S. “Asian yuppies … are always looking for something new and different”: creating a tobacco culture among young Asians. Tobacco Control 2004; 13 (Suppl 2): ii22–29.
  4. Knight J, Chapman S. “A phony way to show sincerity, as we all well know”: tobacco industry lobbying against tobacco control in Hong Kong. Tobacco Control 2004; 13 (Suppl 2): ii13–21.
  5. Tofler A, Chapman S. “Some convincing arguments to pass back to nervous customers”: the role of the tobacco retailer in the Australian tobacco industry’s smoker reassurance campaign, 1953–1978. Tobacco Control 2003;12 (Suppl 3): iii7–iii12.