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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Great American Smokeout:
Me, the Media, and Addiction

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer
E-Mail: WillWalsh@aol

Thursday is The Great American Smokeout, and like millions of other addicts, I'm going to try to stop smoking for at least 24 hours. It's tough.

As I wish I'd never begun, I'm thinking about what got me to START in the first place. It would be easy to blame the tobacco companies and their advertising, but it's much more subtle than that. The media in general - ALL media - is a real co-conspirator in getting me hooked. I was just dumb enough to fall for it.

I remember when I started smoking exactly. Sure, there had been isolated cigarettes as a pre-high schooler, but those were just fooling around, few and far between. We were just experimenting with smoking, trying to see what the big deal was, what the whole thing was about. It wasn't REALLY smoking - at least not as a habit. In fact, I doubt if I even inhaled back then.

No, smoking as a habit began for me in college. (This is so embarrassing, I wonder if I should even tell you about it. It's downright stupid. But it's the truth.) I was the first kid in my family to go away to college, and I was feeling pretty mature. Actually, the first reading assignment in the Introductory Psychology course was to read something by Freud, so as I sat there in my dormitory room - a college student - reading Sigmund Freud, no less - I was feeling VERY grown-up. The only thing missing, I thought, was a cigarette.

I kid you not. It was the IMAGE of being an adult - the FEELING of being mature - that suckered me into going out and buying my first real pack of cigarettes. I was "hooked" on the propaganda long before I was hooked on the nicotine. The cigarette companies had sold me an image, a belief that smoking made you grown-up. And I bought it.

Today cigarette companies spend six billion dollars a year advertising their cigarettes. Or perhaps I should say that they spend the money spreading their propaganda. Although advertisements for smoking have been severely restricted, the ads still show young, sexy people having fun. The smokers and their lives look so attractive - whether it's the rugged Marlboro Man on horseback or the swimsuit-clad young people cavorting on the beach with Newports. Always active. Always enjoyable. Always so desirable.

Looking back, I can't point to any one ad or even brand which made smoking look so attractive to me. It was more like a whole culture - Doctors on TV smoked and secret agents did, too. Winston tasted good like a cigarette should. There were literally millions of suggestions, hints, images which were planted in my fertile adolescent mind like little time bombs. Smoking was adult. Smoking was good. It was fun. It tasted good.

And so I got hooked.

It's not ENTIRELY the media's fault, mind you. I can't blame them entirely. Millions of people my age never started smoking. Millions more have given it up since then. I've tried myself, dozens of times.

The problem is that - despite the media advertising of cigarettes being a convenient scapegoat - the relationship between advertising and consumer behavior is neither clear nor direct. After all, marijuana and heroin are not advertised at all, but they still are enjoying booming sales these days. It would be easy to blame Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man for my addiction. Too easy. The fault is more widespread than that.

Although I cannot blame cigarette advertising per se for putting me here in Marlboro Country, I certainly think that cigarette advertising should be banned. OK, maybe (with a nod to the First Amendment) we should just let them say, "If you're an addict and need to buy some nicotine, we certainly hope that you'll buy OUR brand of poison." But that's it. No pretty girls, no rugged cowboys, no images of maturity to suck in adolescents.

Cigarettes kill 400,000 people per year - 10 times more than illegal drugs. I want to do what I can to stop it.

Some of us grew up in a society which was drenched with media images that smoking was cool, mature, and sophisticated. It's a testament to the power of media that so many of us accepted that. In reality, smoking is just stupid.

Blaming the media for leading me down the road to addiction doesn't help ME with MY problem, certainly (that's something I've got to struggle with myself). But one idea of the Great American Smokeout is that maybe we (all of us - smokers included) can at least warn others about the very powerful media forces which continue to urge us to smoke.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.