Ads pitch sex-related drugs, tobacco to teen girls

Girl smoking thanks to commercials targeting herMarketing to teen girls has crossed the line; several, in fact. Sandwiched in between ads for acne drugs and Gossip Girl are ads filled with sex, tobacco, and other issues related to young girls' health.

Case in point: During this year's Academy Awards, TV viewers saw the newest ad from drug maker GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which makes Cervarix, a cervical cancer vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration in October. Following the glitzy and glamorous tradition of the Academy Awards, the ad, aimed at preventing cervical cancer, was targeted at teens and young women.

While no one is saying vaccines are bad, marketing ones that are sex-related is a move some say has crossed the line.

"It's bad enough that drug and tobacco companies have ads running that young people see. But specifically targeting them seems immoral," says Tina Jackson, a Chicago mother of three daughters. "While it's important for young women to be proactive about their health, I don't think ads for cervical cancer vaccines are necessary."

Cervarix isn't the first vaccine to raise eyebrows. In 2006, Merck (MRK) rolled out a media blitz virtually scaring parents into having their daughters vaccinated with Gardisil, recommended for girls age 9 to 26, before they became sexually active. The vaccine prevents some forms of human papillomaviruses (HPV).

"I don't mind being the target audience for ads like these, but i don't think my three young daughters should be," says Jackson. And HPV vaccines aren't the only ones trying to get the attention of young girls.

You haven't come that long of a way, baby

In the late 1960s, Phillip Morris proudly hawked its Virginia Slims cigarettes, advertising, "You've come a long way, baby." And according to a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics, parents need to beware that, just as in the 1960s, tobacco companies are getting into the heads of young girls. The study says the 2007 R.J. Reynolds' cigarette campaign for Camel No. 9 had a significant impact on teen girls -- unsettling news since lung cancer is the leading killer of women in the U.S.

The University of California San Diego and the American Legacy Foundation researchers enrolled more than 1,000 children ages 10-13 in a study in 2003 and followed them through 2008, asking them their favorite cigarette advertisement. The proportion of boys who reported having a favorite ad remained stable across five surveys. However, after the launch of the Camel No. 9 ad campaign, which depicts fashion icons and girlish colors, the number of teen girls who reported having a favorite cigarette ad increased by 10% -- with Camel accounting for almost all of that increase.

"I saw those ads and still remember them," says 20-year-old Taisha Porter, who smokes almost a pack of cigarettes a day.

What's a parent to do?

"Clearly I can't keep them from ever watching the television, surfing the Internet or reading a magazine," says Jackson.

True. But experts say parents can talk to their children. "Ultimately, parents are one of a child's greatest influences," says New York City pediatrician Jonathan Whitman. "And consistently cautioning against smoking can undo and even trump the negative, potentially harmful ads that continue to go too far."
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