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‘Getting them before they turn 26’

May 30,2015 - Last updated at May 30,2015

I was part of the generation known for their great hospitality and generosity. The best of everything came out for the guests, from the food to the tableware.

However, we always knew how particularly valuable a guest was when the shiny silver tray would suddenly appear, neatly stacked with cigarette packs of all brands, and not just the local brands, mind you. The tray would be passed around to all guests proudly and ceremoniously around the room, taking care not to step on the children running around through clouds of smoke.

And this is how a generation of smokers came to be.

At least then the deadly statistics were not known; we simply did not know the facts.

Now 30, 40 years on, we know the facts. We know that the tobacco industry is responsible for the death of 50 per cent of our population from cancer, diabetes, heart and lung diseases. We also know that it is predicted to kill a billion souls this century.

However, what we do not know is that the scene, strategy and the tactics of the tobacco industry are essentially the same, with one difference: the tactics have become more sophisticated, sneakier and more effective, especially in developing countries.

Tobacco industry is actually an amazingly profitable business. It has clear strategies that are unwavering, long term and focused. Its overall arching goal is to get our youth to pick up their first cigarette or hookah and, more importantly, to never let go.

They have fine tuned their marketing research to a total science. They figured out that if young people do not start smoking by age 26, they almost certainly will not start. So they made it their business to know people.

They know the youth more than their parents do. They know the youth more than they know themselves. They know their vulnerabilities, their life stages and transitions, their ego, their stresses and, most importantly, they know when to strike.

They take note of the youth’s life passages, peer pressure and stressful points in their life. They understand that youth are more vulnerable to marketing than adults and therefore they strike through sneaky integration with their activities: school, work, college, military service, etc.

They understand the transition from smoking that first cigarette to becoming a confirmed pack-a-day smoker. They even have names for these strategies: “preparatory stage”, “trying stage”, “experimental stage”, “regular use stage” and, the end game, “addiction”.

Tobacco companies have budgets that supersede those of many countries. They spent 10 billion in 2008 to market their products. They gear their budget to pay for price cuts through coupons and giveaways to make tobacco products more affordable, design products that appeal by using flavouring, or by using misleading terms such as “slims” and “thins” to entice especially girls to consider tobacco as an aid to lose weight, ”light” or “low tar”, and many other devious ways to get one.

When young people are in the mood to experiment, tobacco companies make sure they are there right outside schools. When they feel the need to be cool, they find them and, worse, they have defined what cool is for them.

When the youth want to rebel against parents, they are also there selling them cigarettes cheaper than candy.

And they have the capital to spend and spend to make sure that people remain their lifelong customers.

It is the youth who provide them with their fuel to thrive; our precious youth are their lifeline. Unfortunately, companies are not the youth’s lifeline.

The minute one picks up that cigarette or hookah, one are doomed; already on the death row. And then when one gets sick, be it from cancer, heart disease, etc., they suddenly disappear from one’s life. They, that were always present in one’s life and activities, simply disappear.

They will not be by one’s bedside when one is sick. They will not pay hospital bills with the tainted dollars they earned at the expense of one’s health.

So what is to be done? Governments are obliged to protect one from tobacco, be it cigarettes, hookahs or any other tobacco product.

They need to be serious in de-normalising both tobacco use and tobacco industry through effective communication and strict adherence to Article 5.3 of WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

They need to raise tobacco taxes sharply, and to use the revenues collected to strengthen implementation of national tobacco control plans.

Governments need to implement every single line of the WHO EMPOWER programme. And they need to start now.

However, the youth also has to be part of the battle.

The best defence is offence. They need to be empowered with knowledge and facts. They need to know that they are but pawns in a very nasty billion-dollar industry that has blood on its hands.

They need to be empowered, to be able to see the facts clearly through the dense smoke screen. 

They need to arm themselves, and others, with advocacy and leadership skills. To arm themselves with knowledge and facts about the tactics of the tobacco industry that targets them.

They need to take ownership of the tobacco movement and make a decisive resolution not to be victims anymore. 


The writer is director general of King Hussein Cancer Foundation and honorary chairperson of the Jordan Breast Cancer Programme. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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