School kids who sport clothing and gear emblazoned with cigarette names and logos are four times more likely to smoke than other kids, according to a study suggesting that such promotional items may foster youth smoking.
Although tobacco companies are prohibited by federal law from selling or giving cigarette-related merchandise to people under 18, children still end up with hats, T-shirts, backpacks and other gear displaying cigarette brand names and trademarks.
Public health experts and anti-smoking advocates have sharply criticized the promotions, saying the items might function as a sort of stealth advertising that interests kids in smoking.
In recent years, the tobacco industry has boosted spending on merchandise giveaways and catalog sales, from $307 million in 1990 to $665 million in 1995, according to the most recent Federal Trade Commission records.
Meanwhile, national youth smoking rates have risen 1 percent to 2 percent annually since 1992. In 1996, it was estimated that 34 percent of 12th-graders smoked.
The new study, which is the largest to test the correlation between smoking rates and ownership of cigarette merchandise among public school students, was based on a survey of 1,265 youngsters in grades six through 12 at five facilities in rural Vermont and New Hampshire. It found that the merchandise was substantially more prevalent, and more tightly linked with lighting up, than researchers previously observed.
The researchers found that 32 percent of the kids surveyed owned promotional merchandise. T-shirts and hats were the most common items; Marlboro and Camel the most popular brands.
Moreover, 4.8 percent of the kids said they had a promotional item with them on the day of the survey, in October 1996. And because the results indicated that each item taken to school was seen by 10 other kids, the findings “raised the possibility that children were becoming the means through which cigarettes were being promoted to other children,” wrote the physician-researchers.