Over the past few decades tobacco companies around the world have been forced to cease advertising, hide cigarettes from view in stores, and sell their product in some of the ugliest packaging imaginable. So have these changes been accompanied by a decline in rates of smoking? Broadly speaking, the answer is yes.

I was born in South Africa in 1975, so I’m old enough to remember a time and a place where cigarette advertising was as common as, say, mobile phone advertising is today. From billboards and magazine ads, to Formula 1 cars and cinema spots – cigarette advertising was everywhere. The tobacco company sales reps even used to drive around in cars emblazoned with Rothmans, Winston and Camel logos. It was completely normal back in the ’80s.

But while seeing these ads was normal, what they depicted was far from it. Like a lot of great advertising, the cigarette companies didn’t directly sell their product: they sold a lifestyle. The Camel Man was the essence of that rugged adventurer in the wild; the Marlboro Man was the embodiment of the tough cowboy; and some cigarette brands – such as Pall Mall, Benson & Hedges, and Belair – just unabashedly embraced that age-old, number-one selling proposition of all time: sex appeal.

You can find hundreds of these old ads online, but here are a few gems from the 1970s:

Go back a few more decades and you even have ads with doctors and dentists recommending cigarettes!

The ultimate in ugliness

Well how times have changed…

As governments around the world have realised that the burden smoking places on the state – through medical costs and reduced workforce output – outweighs the benefits of taxing cigarettes, restrictions or outright bans on advertising have come into force in most countries. In many places cigarettes are now no longer even on display in shops.

What’s more, a growing number of countries have made it mandatory for cigarette packages to display the no-holds-barred horror of smoking, with full colour pictures that show the worst of its effects on people. I was in part motivated to write this article after a recent trip to South East Asia, which has some of the most gruesome cigarette packets I have ever seen. Below are a few such examples from Thailand:

Australia, France and the United Kingdom have even gone one step further. In these countries, all cigarette brands must now sell their products in the same monotone-coloured packaging (complete with gory images). Similar laws will come into effect in New Zealand, Norway, Ireland and Hungary through 2018 and 2019.

The colour used for this plain packaging is Pantone 448 C, a muddy-brown shade proposed by market-research firm GfK, who were tasked by the Australian government to come up with the least appealing colour possible. The company tested various colours on more than 1,000 regular smokers, but none proved to be as off-putting as Pantone 448 C…

Is all the horror working?

It’s not a straightforward task to draw a line between cause and effect in determining if these marketing restrictions are working. There are many other factors influencing people’s decisions to smoke or not to smoke, including pricing, anti-smoking campaigns and better education overall. But I was curious to see what the trend is, so I went hunting for some data…

In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a massive global study on tobacco smoking (download the report here), with comprehensive country profiles that include breakdowns by gender. Tariq Khokhar, a data scientist from the World Bank, has used this and other WHO data to create a series of charts that illustrate trends in global rates of smoking. Here are some of the points I found most interesting:

  • More than a billion people smoke worldwide
  • Smoking rates decreased or remained constant in 102 countries between 2000 and 2015. The biggest drops were in Denmark, Norway, Uruguay and Myanmar
  • Over the same period, smoking rates increased in 27 countries – all of them low- and middle-income nations. Bahrain, Cameroon, Jordan and The Democratic Republic of the Congo all saw massive increases
  • In several Northern European countries – namely Austria, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands – rates of smoking are equal or almost equal between women and men. (What better indication of gender equality perhaps than the economic and social freedom to smoke yourself to death at the same rate?)
  • The only two countries in the world where women smoke more than men are Nauru and Sweden (although by a very slim margin in Sweden)

Where to from here?

It seems fair to say that smoking rates around the world will continue to fall, in part driven by legislation around advertising. But clearly more needs to be done, particularly in those lower- and middle-income countries that saw rises between 2000 and 2015.

In Finland, where I live, the government is aiming to create a tobacco-free country by 2040, and has put an action plan in place to meet this goal. Initiatives include selling cigarettes in standardised packaging, taxing them even more heavily, and extending smoke-free zones to cover apartment buildings, more public areas and cars transporting children.

Protecting our kids from second-hand smoke and educating them early about the dangers of smoking constitute arguably the most important front in reducing the harm caused by cigarettes. Overall I believe our children will be more informed and in control of their health decisions than previous generations, but it certainly helps that cigarette companies are no longer allowed to sell them a lifestyle that we all know to be a complete lie.

Disclaimer: In case it wasn’t obvious from the tone and content of the article, please note that the cigarette advertisements shown here are for educational purposes only. The author does not endorse the tobacco industry in any way.