Are Tobacco Companies Targeting Military Members & People with Mental Illnesses?

We all learn about certain vices both in and out of the classroom —but it’s not until you get older and you realize the scope of things that you brushed off in middle school health class can impact you or someone you love immensely. And yes, that includes smoking. That's why Truth Initiative, a national organization dedicated to smoking prevention, re-launched their campaign to jumpstart their goal of achieving a smoke-free society.

“This generation is always on,“ Jasmin Malone, the managing director of marketing for the Truth Initiative told Her Campus. “They’re always looking up new information and so, there’s no new news.” 

Rather than relying on fear-based advertisements intended to scare all away from cigarettes, the campaign uses relatable videos, social media outlets and even dance party tours to advocate for the millennials to become the first nonsmoker generation—something of which has been affirmed by the teen smoking rate which has been at its lowest of 6 percent.

However, the campaign has also started to investigate a new controversy with Big Tobacco (a collective moniker used to refer to the largest tobacco companies in the stock exchange): In a report asking whether "if it is just business or is it exploitation​?" the organization assesses how the industry sees members of the military and people with mental illness as the latest targeted group of potential customers.

The Truth campaign recently exposed that Big Tobacco gave free cigarettes to psychiatric facilities, a concerning fact coupled with the statistic that individuals with mental illness or suffering from substance abuse account for 40 percent of the cigarettes that are sold in the United States today. 

The advocacy program also found that there are only 92 smoke-free psychiatric facilities in the country, and unfortunately, those who suffer from depression, anxiety or ADHD are more likely to become smokers and have a harder time than most quitting.

“Psychiatric facilities are looking at what’s best for their patient and culturally, there’s no stigma around smoking,” Malone said.  

This was a sentiment echoed by rapper Logic, who spoke in the campaign video: “You see that it’s considered normal.” Logic, who suffered from depression and anxiety, even has a song narrating his former addiction to nicotine called “Nikki."

Truth says that many people with mental illness use smoking as a method of easing stress and anxiety, despite the fact that nicotine has been shown to increase heart rates and lower the amount of oxygen being supplied to the brain.  

Addiction to nicotine and the traditional cigarette has also affected the military, as Big Tobacco in industry documents, have referred to them as “less educated”, being “part of the wrong crowd”, whilst also holding “limited job prospects” once they return from duty.

According to Truth, Big Tobacco sees the military as a “captive audience” while they are on base. Whether it's free cigarettes sent to them on duty in Saudi Arabia, free merchandise sent from tobacco companies (going to bases under the guise of providing entertainment) or even sending them holiday greeting videos from their family members, Truth finds that their tactics are often used to promote cigarettes with the strong suggestion of marketing their tobacco products.

Big Tobacco’s strategic marketing campaign to the military members on base could also be reflected in that 38 percent of US military smokers who only started smoking after they had enlisted.

The government has started to become more involved in the tobacco industry’s business, aside from limiting how companies advertise cigarettes to the military. Back in July, the FDA announced that they were considering lowering the amount of nicotine allowed to be in a cigarette — something that dramatically lowered tobacco stocks, which rely on the traditional cigarette. Movements in the tobacco industry have also been affected by the introduction of other forms of smoking (i.e. the e-cigarette, menthol cigarettes, and new smokeless cigarettes named the iQos.)

Despite the traditional cigarette starting to be seen as outdated and these newer types of cigarettes being seen as less harmful, Malone still said that substance abuse of any kind can still be detrimental to overall health: “Our position is nicotine in the brain is not a good idea, regardless of the mechanism. It keeps your brain from developing, so the goal is to never have people pick up a cigarette.”

Even with the new ways people are being introduced to cigarettes and the other communities being targeted by tobacco companies (ranging from African-Americans to the LGBTQ communities), Malone argues that the first step to combating the more insidious advertising is to arm young people with education.

 “Education is one of the most powerful tools," Malone said. "We ask people to watch our ads and use any social media platform to share it.”

In addition to the Truth Initiative, there are many health organizations advocating smoking prevention and providing tools to help those who want to quit do so, in a healthy and safe manner. So what can smokers and nonsmokers alike do now to learn and become part of the movement? It stars with education and then, as Malone said, they can “Enlist and join to become part of the solution!”