About ASHFact Sheets

factsheet no:19

Tobacco advertising

and promotion


Action on Smoking and Health – May 2006



Virtually all tobacco advertising is now illegal in the UK and many other countries. In many cases this follows successful public health campaigns to persuade governments of the need for legislation to end the promotion of one of the deadliest consumer products.  However, in many poor countries, tobacco companies continue to market their products using the tactics that have been outlawed in much of the industrialised world.   


Effects of advertising

Despite efforts by governments to restrict or ban tobacco advertising, the tobacco industry continues to spend billions of pounds worldwide promoting its hazardous products.  Tobacco advertising encourages children to start smoking and reinforces the social acceptability of the habit among adults.  A report by the US Surgeon General summarised the impact of tobacco advertising as follows: [1]

Tobacco advertising increases consumption:


·   By encouraging children or young adults to experiment with tobacco and thereby slip into regular use

·   By encouraging smokers to increase consumption

·   By reducing smokers’ motivation to quit

·   By encouraging former smokers to resume

·   By discouraging full and open discussion of the hazards of smoking as a result of media dependence on advertising revenues

·   By muting opposition to controls on tobacco as a result of the dependence of organisations receiving sponsorship from tobacco companies

·   By creating through the ubiquity of advertising, sponsorship, etc. an environment in which tobacco use is seen as familiar and acceptable and the warnings about its health are undermined.


Analysis of internal tobacco company documents released as part of an inquiry into the conduct of the UK tobacco industry found that the companies worked with advertising agencies to target young people.  The documents revealed that the companies used advertising to increase overall consumption as well as brand share, in contrast to their public assertions that they only advertise to encourage existing smokers to switch brands. [2]  



Effects of a ban on tobacco advertising

The tobacco industry argues that it cannot be proven that a ban on tobacco advertising will lead to a reduction in consumption.  However, there are a number of ways of measuring the impact of bans: by examining the link between expenditure on advertising and tobacco consumption; by comparing consumption within a country before and after a ban; and by comparing international trends in tobacco consumption and tobacco control measures.


Econometric research

Most econometric studies have found that increased expenditure on tobacco advertising increases demand for cigarettes, while banning advertising leads to a reduction in tobacco consumption.  A meta-analysis of 48 econometric studies found that tobacco advertising significantly increased tobacco sales. [3]      


Research within countries before and after an advertising ban 

A review by the UK Department of Health's Chief Economic Adviser found that in countries that had implemented a tobacco advertising ban, there was a drop in tobacco consumption of between 4% and 16%. [4]  



International trends in tobacco consumption and tobacco control measures

This type of study compares trends in tobacco advertising and consumption.  A study commissioned by the New Zealand government examined trends in consumption and advertising in 33 countries during 1970-1986.  It demonstrated that the higher the degree of governmental control on tobacco advertising and sponsorship, the larger the annual reduction of tobacco consumption. [5]   Similar conclusions were drawn from a time series analysis in 22 OECD countries for the period 1960-1986. [6] 


An international overview of  the effect of tobacco advertising bans on tobacco consumption concluded that “a comprehensive set of tobacco advertising bans can reduce tobacco consumption but a limited set of advertising bans will have little or no effect”.  [7] This is because tobacco companies respond to partial bans by diverting resources from the restricted to the non-restricted media.     



Tobacco Advertising in the UK



Prior to tobacco advertising being banned by law, tobacco companies in the UK spent millions of pounds every year promoting tobacco products.  This reached a peak in the early 1990s when expenditure was around £100 million a year.   During the period September 2001 to August 2002, tobacco advertising expenditure in the UK  amounted to £25 million, excluding sponsorship and indirect advertising. The companies spent £11 million on press advertising; £13.2 million on outdoor (billboards); £714,550 on radio advertising; and £106,253 on direct mail. [8]  Tobacco companies have traditionally invested heavily in the sponsorship of sport to promote their brands.  In the UK,  the tobacco industry was spending an estimated £8m a year on the sponsorship of sport (excluding Formula One) and a further £70m on Formula One in the UK. [9]  In addition there was considerable expenditure on  promotional offers, shop-front and point of sale advertising,  and brand-stretching which led to the appearance of tobacco brand logos on fashion clothing and accessories.   During  the 1990s, the tobacco industry reduced expenditure on billboard and print advertising and shifted marketing funds to direct mail, sales promotions and other promotional activities. [10]



Legislation and voluntary codes of practice

Following the implementation of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act in 2003,  most forms of tobacco advertising and promotion are now banned in the UK.  A partial ban on tobacco advertising also exists  throughout the European Union as a result of an EU Directive.  The EU Directive is considerably weaker than the UK Act and only applies to cross-border advertising (e.g. by radio, internet) and sponsorship.  It does not cover indirect advertising.  However, the Directive permits EU member states to apply stronger measures so that a ban on indirect advertising applies in the UK by virtue of the UK law. For further details of European Union tobacco policy see: http://www.ash.org.uk/html/factsheets/html/fact20.html   


Under the terms of the UK Act, tobacco advertising in the print media and on billboards was prohibited from 14 February 2003, and direct mail and other promotions had to stop by 14 May 2003.  Tobacco sponsorship of sport (other than global events) ended on 31 July 2003 but sponsorship of Formula One motor racing was allowed to continue until July 2005.  Regulations on brand-sharing (indirect advertising) came into force in 2003 and point of sale advertising regulations entered into force on 21 December 2004.[11]  Advertising at the point of sale is limited to a single advertisement not exceeding A5 size, ie a surface area of 21 x 15cm.  The regulations were legally challenged by the tobacco industry as being “disproportionately restrictive” but the claim was dismissed by the High Court. [12]    


Tobacco advertising on television was banned under the terms of the European “Television without Frontiers” directive.  (Cigarette advertising was banned from UK television in 1965 under powers granted by the Television Act 1964.)  Prior to the passing of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act all other forms of advertising and promotion were controlled by two voluntary agreements which were periodically negotiated between the tobacco industry and the government.  One agreement covered advertising and the other governed tobacco sponsorship of sport.  However, the agreements were ineffective in reducing advertising and contained measures that had little or no impact.  For example, the advertising agreement prohibited advertising on billboards within a 200 metre range of schools but completely evaded the effect of promotions on children outside the 200 metre zone.   Following an inquiry into the tobacco industry, the parliamentary Health Select Committee concluded that “Voluntary agreements have served the industry well and the public badly. Regulations have been seen by tobacco companies as hurdles to be overcome or side-stepped; legislation banning advertising as a challenge, a policy to be systematically undermined by whatever means possible.”  [13] (Para 88)




Following the ban of cigarette advertising from television in 1965, cigarette companies started to sponsor sports as an alternative way of advertising their brands on television.  Popular sports such as motor racing, snooker, and rugby attract millions of viewers and helped convey the image that smoking was ‘cool’ and exciting, particularly to children.  Research showed that children as young as six associated brands such as Marlboro with ‘excitement and fast cars’.  [14]


Tobacco sponsorship of the arts was never on the scale of that of sport - examples included: Benson & Hedges Gold Photography competition (ICA Galleries), Gallaher's support for the Ulster Orchestra, BAT’s sponsorship of the Cambridge Footlights and Marlboro Lights sponsorship of the Lighten Up Comedy Tour. 


Other forms of sponsorship by tobacco companies include the funding of scientists or research institutions.  In 1996, BAT gave £1.5 million to Cambridge university to fund a Chair in international relations.  In December 2000, Nottingham university announced that it had accepted a grant of £3.8 million from BAT to set up an International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility. [15] 



Indirect Advertising or brand-stretching

In response to tighter regulations on tobacco advertising and sponsorship, tobacco companies began to market other products with a shared brand name, such as Marlboro Classics clothing and Camel boots and accessories.  These ventures are designed to promote tobacco brands when tobacco advertising is banned.  However, this form of marketing was banned under the terms of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act. For further information on indirect advertising see: ASH briefing on brandstretching   


In addition to the above, some tobacco companies have set up covert websites to attract young people. These typically contain information about nightclubs or other events where cigarettes are heavily promoted.

For example, BAT set up its Citygobo website (www.citygobo.com) which had no overt tobacco links. For further information on this and ASH’s counter-website, see section on Stealth  marketing   







[1]      Reducing the health consequences of smoking: 25 years of progress.  A report of the Surgeon General.  USDHHS, 1989

[2]      Hastings G, MacFadyen L. Keep smiling no one’s going to die. An analysis of internal documents from the tobacco industry’s main UK advertising agencies.  Centre for Tobacco Control Research,  October 2000  View report Examples of the documents can also be viewed at:  www.tobaccopapers.com   

[3]      Andrews RL, Franke GR.  The determinants of cigarette consumption: A meta-analysis.  Journal of Public Policy and Marketing. 1991; 10: 81-100

[4]      Smee C, Parsonage M, Anderson R, Duckworth S.  Effect of tobacco advertising on tobacco consumption: a discussion document reviewing the evidence.  London,  Economics and Operational Research Division, Department of Health, 1992.

[5]      Health or Tobacco.  An end to tobacco advertising and promotion. Toxic substances Board. Wellington, New Zealand, 1989.

[6]      Laugesen M, Meads C.  Tobacco restrictions, price, income and tobacco consumption in OECD countries, 1960-1986.  British Journal of Addiction 1991; 86: 1343-1354

[7]      Saffer, H and Chaloupka, F.  The effect of tobacco advertising bans on tobacco consumption.  J of Health Economics, 2000; 19: 1117-1137.   [View abstract]

[8]      ACNielsen MMS Ltd.  October, 2002

[9]      Parliamentary Question HL681, House of Lords, 30/7/01

[10]    Stubbing out advertising. Marketing Week, 5/1/96.              Post-ban boom for DM sector? Marketing, 22/5/97.

[11]    For further details on the law relating to UK and EU tobacco advertising see ASH Law Guide  

[12]    The High Court ruling can be viewed at: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2004/2493.html

[13]    Health Select Committee report 

[14]    From the billboard to the playground. (Summary of the academic research on the influence of advertising on children’s smoking.) Cancer Research Campaign and the Centre for Social marketing, University of Strathclyde, 1991.

[15]    Press release of the University of Nottingham, 4/12/00