The nonprofit organization Truth Initiative has launched a social advocacy campaign calling out the tobacco industry for what it describes as “exploitation” of service members to entice them to start smoking, citing marketing materials from the 1980s.
A one-minute ad, already available online, will air during the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night. It quotes internal documents from R.J. Reynolds that make the case for marketing to the military population, describing service members as the ”classic downscale smoker,” “less educated,” “part of the wrong crowd,” and holding “limited job prospects.”
The ad features testimony from young veterans who are critical of the companies and the documents’ portrayal of service members. It briefly mentions the age of the source material: Nine seconds into the video, for a fraction of a second, the words “memorandum” and “1983” flash on the screen.
This campaign is not about going after Defense Department officials for how they’re handling tobacco, said Dave Dobbins, chief operating officer of Truth Initiative, a nonprofit established in 1999 as a result of the Master Settlement Agreement between tobacco companies and all but four states.
“The military, in the last few years, has seemed to recognize that tobacco is not a fun thing to give troops as a goody,” he said.
He noted DoD has publicly stated that tobacco use reduces readiness, increases health costs. “We applaud the military for that,” he said.
Rather, he said, the purpose is to show how tobacco companies allegedly exerted such pressure through marketing and advertising with the military that smoking became, and remains, part of the culture.
The ad doesn’t reflect R.J. Reynolds’ current marketing approach, according to a spokesman for the company.
“Unfortunately, this ad misleads the viewer into believing that they are referencing recent industry documents. None of this reflects how we conduct our business,” said David Howard, spokesman for Reynolds American Services Company.
“R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and all the subsidiaries of Reynolds American Inc. have the highest respect for the men and women of our country’s armed forces, and express our deepest appreciation for their service.”
In an April 2016 memo, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter noted the department’s commitment to protect service members from the “inarguably negative impact of tobacco use and the harmful effects of second hand smoke.”
He noted that 38 percent of current military smokers started smoking after they enlisted. The health costs and loss of productivity in the military population costs DoD more than $1.6 billion a year, per the memo.
Defense officials have made a number of efforts on a variety of fronts to reduce the use of tobacco among service members. For example, defense health officials have frequent anti-tobacco campaigns and offer tobacco cessation services such as counseling and medications.
Officials have restricted tobacco use to specifically designated outdoor areas. Since 1996, DoD has been reducing the amount of discounts allowed on tobacco in commissaries and exchanges. The latest, implemented this year, requires tobacco prices in all DoD sales outlets to match the most prevalent price in the local market, including the effect of local and state sales tax.
Tobacco sales in Army and Air Force exchanges (and commissaries on Army and Air Force bases) have decreased from $597 million in 2009 to $358 million in 2016, even as tobacco prices have increased.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2011, 24 percent of all active-duty military personnel reported being smokers, compared with 19 percent of civilians.
Truth Initiative has been trying to get the word out about the negative effects of smoking since 1999, Dobbins said, “but we have seen there are certain pockets where tobacco use remains stubbornly high.”
The military is one of those pockets, so they starting looking into tobacco documents and tobacco company marketing practices.
“We found that it’s because they invested a lot of money getting into certain cultures,” Dobbins said. “We found a concentrated tobacco company effort to associate itself with the military.
“And after all, who wouldn’t want to be associated with the military? It’s probably one of the most respected institutions in the country, and has been for many, many years.”
Elizabeth Smith, professor of social and behavioral sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, has been conducting research for 10 years into the tobacco industry’s attempt to affect policy in the military and other aspects of military tobacco use. “This is a key market and they wanted to get as much of it as possible,” she says in the ad.
Smith notes that certain types of access to tobacco have been eliminated ― the military stopped distributing cigarettes in C and K rations in 1975, for example.
Tobacco companies are no longer allowed to provide free branded swag and are not allowed to sponsor events on military bases, “but they’re still very active in terms of trying to prevent the military from actually establishing a lot stronger tobacco control policies,” she said, partly through lobbying lawmakers.
“They don’t have quite as much access as they used to have, but I think it’s a market they’re still very interested in,” she said.
Dobbins said this advocacy campaign “isn’t an effort to take away things from people. This is just an effort to make sure people understand how … tobacco got associated with your military culture. We think when people understand that, they think twice about using tobacco.”
“It’s a real readiness issue. We find that people are sicker, they recover from injury more slowly, they’re less fit on the battlefield. It’s not something that’s going to help you do your job.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.