Guest Op-Ed: Fighting the influence of Big Tobacco

September 18, 2013 Editorial Staff
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Cigarettes, when used as directed, addict and kill their users. That’s a bad rap to beat. So the tobacco industry spends billions on marketing, about $196 million each year in New York alone.

While adults have more experience and education when weighing their options regarding smoking, youth are more susceptible to tobacco advertising, which is overwhelmingly omnipresent in their day-to-day lives.

Given that almost 90 percent of smokers pick up the habit before the age of 18, we know that youth are targets in the tobacco industry’s effort to hook the next generation of smokers.

Since tobacco advertisements on TV commercials, billboards and youth magazines are mostly prohibited, we’re now finding that Big Tobacco is popping up in more surreptitious places — the stores and street corners that youth visit every day.

Of all the tobacco retailers in the city, 75 percent are within mere blocks of a school. That’s why local community leaders and organizations are working to combat youth exposure to tobacco advertisement.

Through a public health mentorship program that the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) piloted in conjunction with the NYC Coalition for a Smoke-Free City, we are working to empower those most vulnerable to tobacco ads.

The pilot mentorship program educated students about the prevalence of tobacco advertising they are exposed to on a regular basis. Students in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens mapped tobacco advertisements around their schools and found alarming results citywide.

The program educated local high school and college students, empowered them to act in their community, and exposed the true nature of Big Tobacco’s advertising strategy.

In Flatbush, a team of seven high school interns from Brooklyn College Academy high school worked with NYPIRG staff and Brooklyn College students to provide a comprehensive picture of local tobacco advertising.

Citywide, student surveyors observed 136 tobacco advertisements on the exteriors of store buildings; a whopping 79 percent of those were observed in Flatbush.

In the interior of stores in Flatbush alone, student surveyors observed 120 tobacco ads. These ads were found on and in 24 different businesses — all within a few blocks of Brooklyn College Academy.

This concentration of advertising around schools is a clear indication of an effort by tobacco companies to smoke out youth and get them addicted.

Tobacco companies have maintained the reputation of being ethically lacking; targeting our youth with advertisements is a salient reminder of that.

It is a shared responsibility to protect our youth by educating them of the dangers of smoking and empowering them to make decisions in their own best interest. Students of all ages here in Flatbush, and across the city, are standing together against Big Tobacco’s advertising onslaught.

Robert Noonan is project coordinator for NYPIRG at Brooklyn College.

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