Despite severe restrictions on tobacco advertising, youths are still too often exposed to media depicting smoking and drinking in a favourable light, according to one group of doctors.
"We are 65,000 paediatricians who are vitally concerned with the health of children," said Dr Victor Strasburger of the American Academy of Paediatrics, author of a new policy statement on children, adolescents, substance abuse and the media.
"With nearly half of kids at least trying smoking, and with more than 400,000 Americans dying every year from tobacco, the academy feels it is really time to ban all tobacco advertising."
The academy published the policy statement in its journal Paediatrics, which also recommended limiting alcohol advertising and exposure of children to PG-13 and R-rated movies.
$25 billion spent on advertising
The authors say more than $25 billion are spent every year on advertising tobacco, alcohol and prescription drugs.
"Parents have gotten caught up with all the hard drugs - cocaine, steroids - but they fail to realise that tobacco and alcohol are still by far the leading drugs among teenagers," Strasburger, also of the University of New Mexico in the US, told Reuters Health.
46 million Americans smoke
According to the US Centres for Diseases Control and Prevention, about 46 million Americans light up. Relative to the population, that number is down by more than half since 1965, although millions still get serious illness every year from smoking.
One in five high school students smoked cigarettes in 2007, a number that has also dropped over the past decade.
Strasburger said banning tobacco ads and promotions in all media worked and had decreased smoking rates in other countries such as the UK and Australia.
"At its most fundamental level, we agree with the academy," said Maura Payne, a spokeswoman for Reynolds American Inc., the second largest US tobacco company. "Kids shouldn't smoke."
She said the bulk of industry advertising, $15 billion according to the new statement, really wasn't advertising, but price discounts.
Advertising in a traditional sense, she said, is limited to password-protected websites, in-store ads, adult smokers who have requested to be on a mailing list and magazines with a readership of at least 85% adults.
And these ads, she said, aren't meant to get more people hooked.
"Because the number of adults who smoke is declining every year, the name of the game is brand switching," she told Reuters Health.
But even if advertising is restricted, exposure to smoking is still common in the media. For instance, the authors of the new statement note, three-quarters of G-, PG-, and PG-13-rated movies contain smoking scenes.
According to Strasburger, several studies suggest smoking on television and in movies is a key factor in getting teens to pick up the habit.
"Parents need to understand that kids are spending seven hours a day with media and that the media have become one of the leading drug educators today," he said.
As a result, the academy recommends removing televisions from children's bedrooms and limiting access to channels with "excessive substance use depictions" like MTV, HBO, Showtime and Comedy Central, as well as PG-13 and R-rated movies.
Regulating alcohol ads
That might also cut down on exposure to alcohol ads, which are much less restricted. As an example, the authors write, "A sample of 9- to 10-year-olds could identify the Budweiser frogs nearly as frequently as they could Bugs Bunny."
They also say advertisements for prescription medicines like the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra are far too common on television compared to ads for condoms, which many networks don't want to air.
"Children and teenagers get the message that there is a pill to cure all ills and a drug for every occasion, including sexual intercourse," they write. - (Frederik Joelving/Reuters Health, September 2010)
SOURCE: http://link.reuters.com/gas77m Pediatrics, online September 27, 2010.