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The Economic Influences That Are Shaping Public Opinion and Policy in The Tobacco Industry

For decades, the Tobacco industry has thrived in an environment that has promoted its use. Through time and newly discovered research, it has been recognized that the industry is killing its very own customers. As stated by the American Lung Association, around 480,000 deaths annually can be linked to cigarette fatalities alone in the US (CDC, 2021). While the industry induces negative health benefits to society, exploring this topic leads to the question of: How has the tobacco industry been able to shape public opinion and policy for economic gain, and how have these efforts been implemented? An extensive review of available studies, literature, and data, reflecting the history of the tobacco industry, has shown two major strategies that have proven to affect the outcome of the industry's financial success. The tobacco industry strategically lobbies and establishes connections with policymakers as well as weaves itself into popular culture and media for economic gain.

Firstly, the continuous acts of lobbying in the tobacco industry as a whole have led the discussion for their powerful grasp over its consumers. A study conducted by the Saint Louis University of Public Health revealed that legislators had collectively received $6,827,763 from seventeen tobacco industry Political Action Committees (PACs), averaging $12,956 per member (Luke, Krauss, 1). The highest average contributions were to Senate Republicans ($22,004), while Senate Democrats received the lowest average amount ($6,057). In terms of voting patterns, Republicans supported tobacco interests 73% of the time, compared to Democrats who did so 23% of the time (Luke, Krauss, 1). This directly shows a strong connection between the funding presented to legislators and the laws that are legally enforced.

In addition to the political lobbying of the tobacco industry, there exists another strategic operation that big tobacco corporations take advantage of. Since the immediate rise of commercial tobacco use in the early 1900s, there has been no absence of tobacco campaigning throughout the media. Tobacco companies have consistently kept up to date with trends and effective ways to influence the public, with the World Health Organization stating “The tobacco industry has made well-researched, calculated attempts to redesign and rebrand its products to sustain profitability” referring to their constant ability to change (WHO, 1). The presence of tobacco in pop culture and the media has shown to be another clear strategic play that tobacco companies have enforced, to capitalize on financial gain.

As their progression in advertisement evolves, so does their consumer base; which may have been more than an accidental breach. Howard Parker, a professor at the University of Manchester conducted a study on the normalization of drugs and tobacco among youth. Adolescence is a critical time for experimentation and forming habits that can impact an individual’s health and lifestyle choices into adulthood (Parker). Comparing both his findings to the ones of Saint Louis University, figures that those same age brackets in Parker's study, are equivalent to the ones being targeted by the tobacco industry in the media. It is no coincidence that adolescents are a part of the demographic being targeted by the tobacco industry. Parker remarks his findings clearly, explaining that “We are concerned with the spread of abnormal activity and associated attitudes from the margins to the center of youth culture…”, referencing activities like “…excessive drinking, casual sexual encounters, and daily cigarette smoking” (​​Parker). The glamorization of drugs and tobacco is clear and backed up with sufficient evidence. The American Addiction Center found that 71% of television programs depict alcohol use, 19% depict tobacco use, 20% mention illicit drug use and 60% of adolescent participants had experimented with illicit substances (Kaliszewski). Howard Parker's same study of following 700 young adults, to research the drug use issue among adolescent teens had similar findings, where the results satisfy a connection between the primary consumers of pop culture and new consumers of tobacco. Parker found that 91.1% of adolescent participants in the study said they had been offered illegal drugs before (Parker). This pushes the argument of their possible approach to reach adolescence, through media and pop culture, as well as its astonishing success. Although not directly addressing tobacco in this portion of the study, it can be inferred that along with drugs, the tobacco industry has had successful attempts to make tobacco a large part of the media, and thus into youths' social lives. Portrayed in the studies above, is the influence that tobacco has had in pop culture and youth adolescence, which has revealed their attempts to secure influence in subtle ways; out of sight from possible advertising policies. They have constantly been shut down as the government takes “Significant action” on what they can and can't promote (Christensen). The studies done both by private and federal organizations prove a very similar idea, that the tobacco industry is seeking economic gain through media, and is using pop culture to do so under the radar of narcotic promotion policies. 

Nevertheless, when approaching this from another perspective, this could all be classified as the tobacco industry simply using media and influential people to help sell a product, just like every other company on the commercial market. This argument is primarily based on the fact that tobacco promotion is not entirely illegal and only has restrictions on certain forms of advertisement such as television and radio. According to research by the American Lung Association, the tobacco industry continues to invest heavily in promotion, spending approximately $8.06 billion annually in the United States (ALA, 2023). This research highlights the investments and the industry's persistent efforts to maintain and expand its market reach, even with such restrictions in effect. The tobacco industry has every right to advertise a legal product in their respective country. Although, while they exercise this right, they pose the risk of navigating additional policies, hence their intertwined relationship with the government and policy-making. What makes this way of promoting not just another advertisement method, is their consistent approach to connect with young adults, in the early stages of the brain and moral development. On the other hand, lobbying and political influence is a different case with an opposing view. Initially, it can be argued that the lobbying and financial support that the industry provides is entirely legal. It cannot be stated that what the PAC has done is illegal, but that surely doesn't rule out the unethical aspect. There are levels to lobbying, and what the PAC has strategically done lies outside of those moral guidelines. They choose who to support financially based on a party's ability to listen to the legal bribe and give little to none to those who won't. 

The research reviewed within this paper suggests the important ethical standpoint behind lobbying and its extent of governmental influence. To maintain relevance, the tobacco industry has adapted strategically to new challenges and policy restrictions. It should make us question what is just and ethical in the old concept of lobbying. Tobacco's role in popular culture should also be assessed, alongside who is producing such media for the benefit of the industry. This goes beyond just tobacco, as we should ask the question of why illicit substances are so prominent amongst young adults today, and the role the media and pop culture have within that question. The tobacco industry has been, and always will be a dominant figure in the economic space, due to its financial power for hundreds of years. As they begin to shift ways of public influence, understanding their ethical point of view is a crucial examination that needs to take place. This analysis of the tobacco industry's strategies and influence highlights the urgent need for ethical scrutiny in how we approach lobbying, media portrayal, and substance use, reminding us of the complex yet crucial role of ethics in shaping public opinion and policy, for economic gain.

Works Cited

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