Advertising of Unhealthy Products

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The average person is exposed to over 2,500 advertisements per day, and some of these advertising messages are for products that could be considered unhealthy. Some obvious examples are cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco. Other products that may be unhealthy if used to excess are alcohol, over-the-counter drugs, fast foods, and high-fat or high-cholesterol foods. Consumers need to be aware that some advertised products may be unhealthy.


According to the Federal Trade Commission Report to Congress for 1997 Pursuant to the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, tobacco companies in the United States spent a total of $5.66 billion on advertising, promotion, and sampling in 1997.

Tobacco products, such as cigarettes, cigars, snuff, and chewing tobacco, are associated with many types of illnesses. Cigarette smoking has been connected to lung cancer, heart disease, and emphysema; the use of cigars to cancers of the mouth and throat; and the use of snuff and chewing tobacco to lesions and cancers of the mouth and lips. It is also dangerous for nonsmokers to breathe secondhand smoke and sidestream smoke from cigarettes. Secondhand smoke has been associated with sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Mothers who smoke during pregnancy tend to have babies of lower birth weight.

In spite of these known risks, advertising tobacco products is still allowed in the United States and many other countries, albeit with some restrictions. For example, in the United States tobacco advertisements may not appear on radio or television, although they are allowed in newspapers and magazines intended for adult readers. Many countries require warning labels on tobacco products. Some countries require similar warning labels on the tobacco advertisements themselves. Other types of advertising restrictions may dictate the content of tobacco advertising. Most jurisdictions in the United States now forbid the use of cartoon characters in tobacco ads, a result of the mid-1990s Joe Camel campaign for R.J. Reynolds, which featured a "cool" cartoon camel that appealed to children. Canada's Tobacco Act forbids the use of people in tobacco ads, as well as the use of lifestyle advertising.

Proponents of tobacco advertising cite freedom of commercial speech as a principle. They argue that if a product is legal to sell, it should be legal to advertise. Furthermore, they insist that tobacco brand advertising is intended to encourage brand switching among adult smokers and is not intended to increase the number of smokers or the size of the tobacco market.

Opponents of tobacco advertising point out that such ads are viewed by children and underage teens. Research shows that cigarette advertising has predisposing effects, leading children to view smoking in a favorable light. As well, cigarette advertising also has reinforcing effects, encouraging youths who have started smoking to continue the habit. Many tobacco ads portray images of independence, freedom, and rebelliousness that particularly appeal to teenagers.

Tobacco companies commonly focus their campaigns on specific demographic groups. Brands such as Virginia Slims are targeted at young women aged 18 to 34, while many menthol brands are aimed at African Americans. Opponents of this practice complain that these advertising campaigns may be taking advantage of vulnerable groups. Tobacco companies commonly respond by arguing that these consumers are all adults who are able to make their own decisions.

In addition to media advertising, tobacco marketers also use other forms of promotion, such as sponsorship of cultural and sporting events. When such sporting eventsfor example, auto racing, golf, and tennisare televised, cigarette marketers' brand names are prominently displayed on the screen, even though marketers may not be legally allowed to advertise on television. This loophole has been closed in some countries that have passed legislation restricting sponsorships by tobacco companies. The Olympic Committee has declared the International Olympic Games a smoke-free event.


Taken in moderation, alcoholic beverages are not harmful for most people. Unfortunately, alcoholism has become a common problem in the United States and throughout the world. Its long-term effects can include cirrhosis of the liver and increased risk of other chronic diseases. Also, driving or operating machinery while under the influence of alcohol is extremely dangerous as well as illegal throughout North America and most parts of the world. Binge drinking, or drinking large quantities of alcohol in a short period of time, can have serious health effects including blackouts and alcohol poisoning. Women who consume alcohol during pregnancy may bear children with fetal alcohol syndrome, a serious medical condition that is characterized by decreased intellectual capacity and developmental deficits.

In spite of these dangers, alcoholic beverages are widely available and are commonly advertised around the world. In the United States beer commercials are frequently seen or heard on television, on billboards, in magazines, and on the radio. These beer commercials are often targeted toward a male young adult audience and are scheduled to appear in television shows such as football, hockey, and other sporting events, as well as sitcoms and dramas that appeal to this target group. Critics of beer advertising point out that beer commercials, with their party atmosphere and youthful spirit, may make the product more appealing to underage teens who watch many of the same television programs as young adult males.

Advertisements for hard liquor are usually not seen on television or heard on radio in the United States. The American liquor industry has made a voluntary agreement to limit its advertising to print media, such as outdoor billboards, newspapers, and magazines. Critics of the liquor industry have charged that these billboards are disproportionately located in poor, inner-city neighborhoods, targeting low-income residents who can ill-afford these products and who are more vulnerable to the social damage they can do. The liquor industry responds to these charges by pointing out that many of these billboards are on high-traffic routes that carry traffic from all parts of the city, not just from the local neighborhood. By the same token, however, children are exposed to this advertising on their way to and from school on a daily basis.

The introduction and advertising of high-alcohol malt liquor products specifically aimed at young African-American adult males has been of particular concern to some health advocates. The liquor industry's response has been to emphasize that all adults can make their own choices about alcohol consumption, regardless of their race or ethnicity. The industry has also pointed out that the suggestion that specific ethnic groups are somehow particularly vulnerable to advertising for alcoholic beverages not only is patronizing, but is also insulting and demeaning to those groups.


Taken in small quantities, foods that are high in fat or cholesterol do not pose a health risk for most people. However, approximately 25 percent of North American adults are overweight or obese. Health professionals blame this epidemic of obesity on a sedentary lifestyle and over-consumption of foods that are high in cholesterol and fat, including high-fat meat, junk food snacks, and most types of restaurant fast food. Being over-weight and having high cholesterol levels are indicators for risk of heart disease and other serious health problems.

But in spite of North America's problems with obesity and overweight, consumption at fast food restaurants continues to rise, as has consumption of snack foods such as potato chips, taco chips, and pretzels. Consumers are bombarded with advertising for McDonald's, Burger King, and other fast-food outlets. Advertisements for corn chips, potato chips, pizzas, and other snack foods surround the public. While food advertising in the United States and many other countries must be approved by regulatory agencies, there is no limit on the quantity or type of food advertising that consumers are exposed to. Regulatory agencies simply ensure that ads are truthful and no false claims are made about food products. The fast-food industry and snack-food industry sell legitimate products that many consumers enjoy in moderation, and their commercials will continue to form a major part of the advertising landscape in most countries.


While tobacco, alcohol, and high-fat food all fall under the category of "unhealthy products," it is important to note that they differ significantly in their degree of unhealthiness. Tobacco is the only product that kills nearly a third of its long-term users, and the addictive nature of nicotine makes it difficult for occasional smokers to avoid turning into regular users. Alcohol and high-fat food, on the other hand, can be enjoyed occasionally within the context of a healthy lifestyle. For this reason, there are usually more restrictions placed on tobacco advertising compared to other unhealthy products.

Anne M. Lavack

(see also: Alcohol Use and Abuse; Behavioral Change; Communication Theory; Counter-Marketing of Tobacco; Eating Disorders; Mass Media; Nutrition; Smoking Behavior; Tobacco Control )


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Advertising of Unhealthy Products

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