ASPPH logo


Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Tobacco Industry Direct Mail and Database Marketing Strategies Studied by Rutgers and UCSF

In a recent study published in Tobacco Control, Dr. M. Jane Lewis, associate professor in the department of health education and behavioral sciences at the Rutgers School of Public Health, in collaboration with Dr. Pamela Ling at UCSF School of Medicine, examined direct mail and database marketing by RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris utilizing internal tobacco industry documents from the Legacy Tobacco Document Library employing standard document research techniques. This is the first study to examine the development, purposes, and extent of direct mail and customer databases.

Copy of Lewis-MastEduc_48472583 reduced
[Photo: Dr. M. Jane Lewis]

With declining smoking rates, more tobacco products becoming available, and a cluttered media landscape, the tobacco industry began utilizing direct mail marketing in the 1970s to build their consumer base. By the mid-1990s both RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris databases contained at least 30 million smokers’ names each. Today, the tobacco industry benefits from these databases as limitations on traditional advertising and promotion and scrutiny by tobacco control have increased.

“Direct mail and database marketing is currently subject to minimal restrictions in the U.S. ,” said Dr. Lewis who is also a member of the School’s Center for Tobacco Studies. “In addition, awareness of them is limited because these strategies operate largely out of sight of the general public and under the radar screen of tobacco control, public health, and regulatory agencies.”

Researchers systematically searched previously secret internal tobacco industry documents from the two largest U.S. tobacco companies, RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris, in the Legacy Tobacco Document Library ( The analysis was based on a final collection of approximately 275 documents, most of which originated from 1970 to 1992.

The analysis showed both RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris started with existing commercial consumer mailing lists, but subsequently built their own databases using outside vendors, as well as generating names through other strategies, such as industry-sponsored events, brand-specific websites, sweepstakes forms, and signed coupons. Databases include smokers’ names, addresses, brand preferences, purchase patterns, interests, and activities. Both companies were found to have made special efforts to increase the number of names from under-represented groups, particularly young adults and minorities.

“Gone are the Days of Mass-Media Marketing Plans and Short Term Customer Relationships: Tobacco Industry Direct Mail and Database Marketing Strategies” was published online in August in the journal Tobacco Control.

Journal article: