Target Market has big tobacco in crosshairs

Jan K. Malcolm

Last week, teens from Minnesota`s teen-led Target Market campaign released survey results telling us young people across the state are hearing Target Market`s anti-tobacco industry message. As a result of this campaign, teen behaviors and attitudes toward the industry and tobacco use are changing – for the first time in more than a decade. The news from Target Market is an exciting sign, after just one year, the campaign is doing precisely what Minnesota`s youth designed it to do – reduce the number of underage smokers.

The changes in attitude highlighted in the survey are important precursors to long-term reductions in youth tobacco use. If the trend continues, as we hope it will, it will be a real success story for the Target Market campaign and the state’s broader Youth Tobacco Prevention Initiative.

When Minnesota legislators and Gov. Jesse Ventura created the tobacco prevention endowment in 1999, they gave the Minnesota Department of Health an important charge to use the resources wisely to produce long-term healthy gains for Minnesota’s youth. The stakes are high – in lives we can save and in future health care costs we can avoid.

MDH took a very different approach from prior tobacco prevention campaigns. This time we empowered Minnesota youth themselves to lead a marketing effort that could speak credibly to young people about tobacco. That credibility requires teens deliver the message peer-to-peer in their own voice, which is not always a voice adults understand.

The survey results tell us that, in just one year, Target Market’s edgy campaign has already successfully reached Minnesota kids. Ninety-three percent of Minnesota teens are aware of Target Market’s central message about the tobacco industry’s manipulation of youth. That’s an awareness level most consumer brands would envy. About three-quarters of the youth surveyed did not want to be targets of the tobacco companies, and more than half say they now feel they have the power to fight back and resist tobacco company marketing.

Does the campaign really work? Will it lead to a long-term decline in Minnesota’s rates of youth tobacco use? We think it will, as long as the effort can be sustained over time. The survey results are an important first indication youth smoking rates in Minnesota are on the decline.

Compared to a survey conducted before the Target Market campaign began, the number of committed non-smokers increased by 20 percent in the past year, and the number of teens who said they might try smoking someday decreased by 25 percent. After more than a decade of significantly increasing youth tobacco use rates (which have been about four percent higher than the national average), the survey suggests the trend is on its way downward.

Changing the social climate around tobacco use is the primary purpose of the Minnesota Youth Tobacco Prevention Initiative of which Target Market is a part. The Target Market campaign is the most visible part of these efforts, but statewide grants and grants to community coalitions working to help young smokers quit, making sure kids cannot buy cigarettes and providing education in schools are vital parts of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend for an effective and comprehensive tobacco control program. Each strategy plays an important role in reshaping and reinforcing the attitudes our kids have toward smoking.

The survey results indicate a phenomenal success for Target Market and the entire initiative. It tells those involved in Target Market and those working statewide and on the community level their efforts are paying off. Our work, however, is far from done.

The tobacco industry continues to spend millions each year on marketing its products in Minnesota. In order to reach the goal the Legislature and the governor set for us to decrease youth smoking rates by 30 percent by 2005, we will have to continue to be aggressive, innovative and responsive to the evidence of what works.

For decades, the tobacco industry has outspent those forces trying to reduce teen smoking. The tobacco industry has spent billions of dollars marketing tobacco as cool and socially attractive, thus drowning out the truth about its addictive nature and its very real health consequences.

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that even since lawsuit settlements with the state of Minnesota and every other state in the nation, the tobacco industry continues to advertise in magazines with heavy teen readership. Based on the most recent report from the Federal Trade Commission, the industry still spends an estimated $140 million dollars each year marketing tobacco in Minnesota – 20 times what the state is spending on the Target Market advertising campaign.

While the public health community is still David to the Goliath tobacco industry, the results from Target Market are exciting indications these efforts can succeed. However, to turn these results into sustained trend and long-term decreases in youth tobacco use, we must maintain our commitment to Target Market and all of the innovative, statewide strategies and community-based approaches we’re taking to decrease the number of Minnesota kids who use tobacco.

We have an unprecedented opportunity to reduce the human and economic consequences tobacco use has on our youth and our communities. When we succeed, it will be one of the best public health investments we’ve ever made.


Jan K. Malcolm is the Minnesota Commissioner of Health. Send comments to [email protected]