Rod Driver

From the Providence Journal, November 24, 1999

Of ads and addictions


The damage smoking does to living creatures had been studied for 25 years before the U.S. surgeon general released his first report on "Smoking and Health" in 1964. Of course the tobacco industry denied the evidence, and it lobbied hard against regulatory action. So more years passed before government agencies gradually initiated steps to warn smokers, to protect nonsmokers, to try to stop ads targeting young people and to recover damages from the tobacco industry.

Similarly, for decades researchers and counselors have seen the financial, emotional and physical devastation suffered by compulsive gamblers, their families, friends and employers. But only recently did we get something analogous to that first Surgeon General's report on smoking.

After two years of study, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission released its report in June 1999. Among other things, the commission noted that adolescents are about twice as likely to develop gambling problems as adults, and it recommended that the gambling industry "avoid explicit or implicit appeals to vulnerable populations, including youth and low-income neighborhoods." The commission urged that students "be warned of the dangers of gambling, beginning at the elementary level and continuing through college."

But this is where the similarity between government response to smoking and government response to gambling ends.

The Study Commission recommended a minimum age of 21 for gambling. In Rhode Island it stands at 18; and kids under 18 can easily buy tickets illegally from vending machines that the Rhode Island Lottery has placed all over the state.

Several states conduct aggressive advertising campaigns to counter the tobacco industry's promotion of smoking among young people. But, when it comes to gambling, as Dr. Howard Shaffer of Harvard Medical School's Division on Addictions has noted, "we have the state promulgating, promoting and advertising an addictive behavior as if it were a patriotic activity."

Cigarette makers need to recruit 3,000 new smokers per day just to replace their customers who die or quit smoking for other reasons. The tobacco industry knows that unless a person starts as a teenager he or she is unlikely to ever become an addicted smoker. And advertisers know that in order to sell a product to teenagers, you must convince them the product is "cool" or that it makes its user look "cool." So this is exactly what they try to do.

Gambling advertisers seem to have the same idea. I recently suggested to the Rhode Island Lottery Commission that its TV commercials, featuring college students announcing the "daily numbers" and urging viewers to play "Powerball," tell young people that gambling is "cool." But Lottery officials -- backed up by "experts" M. Charles Bakst, Guy DuFault, Steve Kass, Bob Kerr, Maureen Moakley and Lila Sapinsley -- declared that this was silly. Kids are too sophisticated to be influenced by TV commercials they said.

Undoubtedly the kids would agree. Dr. John Slade, who studied the effect of cigarette ads at New Jersey's University of Medicine and Dentistry, found that teenagers insist they could never ever be influenced by an ad. This attitude is to be expected, Slade says, since "advertising at its best leaves impressions and influences people without their noticing it."

Big corporations spend billions of dollars on TV ads promoting everything from automobiles and ocean cruises to treatments for acid reflux and erectile dysfunction. They do this because they believe it works; and advertising research backs them up.

In the late 1960s, after barrages of ads showing beautiful women enjoying "Virginia Slims," the percentage of teenage girls who smoked rose dramatically. The rate for boys remained unchanged.

In 1988 a clever advertiser for R. J. Reynolds introduced the "Joe Camel" cartoon character. A year later Camel's 3 percent market share among underage smokers had grown to 8 percent. By 1993 it was 13 percent. And Paul Fischer, a researcher at the University of Georgia, found that 30 percent of 3-year-olds and 91 percent of 6-year-olds identified the debonair "Joe Camel" with Camel cigarettes.

It is reasonable to expect that gambling ads aimed at young people will also be effective. Will we now see years of denial by the Rhode Island Lottery and its fans before we stop encouraging young people to gamble?

The Study Commission which recommended warning college students of the dangers of gambling would be dismayed to learn that the State of Rhode Island still puts college students on TV to remind viewers "you still have two hours to play Powerball's estimated $29 million jackpot."

Rod Driver is a professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Rhode Island and a former Rhode island state representative.