Lara Coyne says she started smoking in the 10th grade for a simple reason: “It was the thing to do.” Then she did something a little less cool: She quit and promised her mother she’d never touch cigarettes again.
So both mother and daughter were dismayed that Philip Morris sent Lara a smoking survey offering free lighters and promising cigarette coupons for answering the survey questions. Along with her preferred brand and purchasing practices, the survey requested names of other smokers who might appreciate cigarette coupons.
“It’s kind of tempting, when you get stuff in the mail, to start up again,” the Virginia teenager said.
Philip Morris says it got Lara’s name from someone else who filled out the survey, even though it specifies names of smokers age 21 or older. Lara is a high school senior in Rocky Mount, Va., outside Roanoke.
A Philip Morris spokeswoman said the company sends surveys to people named by other smokers to verify that recipients are adult smokers.
“The mailing was our attempt to verify her age and status as a smoker,” spokeswoman Tara Carraro said. “She is not an adult. We have immediately removed her name from our data-base, and she will not receive any mailings from us.”
Still, as policy makers struggle to stop teen smoking, anti-smoking advocates say the incident shows how difficult it is to keep cigarettes away from teenagers so long as tobacco companies market to adults.
“We do know through strong anecdotal evidence that kids receive these materials all the time all over the country. This girl is a typical example of what happens every day,” said Cliff Douglas, an attorney in Ann Arbor, Mich., who has fought tobacco companies in court.
Lara’s story reinforces the view that tobacco companies are marketing to teenagers. In documents dated between 1975 and 1988 and released last month, a Philip Morris executive discussed the importance of the teenage market. “Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer,” one document says.
Ninety percent of adult smokers began smoking as teenagers.
Even if Philip Morris did not intend to send the survey to a teenager, it’s not surprising that it ended up in teen hands, said Dick Daynard, a law professor at Northeast University and chairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project.
“If you allow the companies to engage in this type of marketing technique, it will inevitably, regardless of their intentions, end up in the hands of kids,” Daynard said.
Lara says this was not the first time she received cigarette coupons or other smoking offers, although her mother usually snagged them from the mail before she could consider using them.
Quitting smoking wasn’t easy, she said.
“It was very easy to get addicted to it,” she said, saying she once had a half-pack-a-day habit despite her mother’s disapproval. “I had to hide.”
About six months later, she quit.
“I woke up one morning, and I coughed and I coughed, and I decided I wanted to breathe. Plus Mom caught me,” Lara said.
Her mother, Barbara Turner, said she is proud her daughter was able to quit smoking - and all the angrier that she has to sort through her mail, looking for cigarette marketing.
“We were throwing them away. Finally this one came, and I just hit the ceiling,” she said. She contacted the American Cancer Society in Virginia but found they couldn’t do much to help her.
“Joe Camel was off the billboards,” Turner said, “and I really believed it was against the law for them to do this.”