Olympia Cigarettes: How the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Led to Increased Cases of Lung Cancer in Japan Today

Tokyo 64 Cigarettes
Magazine ad for Tokyo64 Cigarettes.

Ah, the Olympics – an international event that celebrates Man’s desire to achieve new heights, to hone the body and mind to a point close to perfection, for the simple love of competition and achievement.

And yet, what was one of the most successful product promotions related to the Olympics? That’s right. Cigarettes.

The Olympic Games, including the logo and its five interlocking rings, have been one of the powerful brands in the history of marketing. After all, what company or organization would not want to be affiliated with words like world peace, excellence, doing your best, comradery, teamwork, fair play. But it really wasn’t until the 1980s when the International Olympic Committee began taking control of its brand.Olympia cigarettes

Michael Payne is the author of a fascinating book on the marketing of the Olympics, called “Olympic Turnaround“. He wrote how cigarettes, game shows and hygiene products for example were being marketed via the Olympic brand, which created tension in the IOC as it was felt such products did not appropriately represent Olympic values. One of the more remarkable examples Payne cites is from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The tension between the Olympic values and commercial interests is long standing. One of the most successful licensed Olympic products ever produced, for example, was “Olympias”, a brand of cigarette. Produced from a mixture of Turkish and Greek tobacco, it was designed to generate funds to support the organization of the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Olympias generated over $1 million in revenues for the Organizing Committee.

Payne went on to provide another example in 1964, a clever promotion using the Olympic brand to further increase the spread of cigarette consumption.

The marriage between cigarettes and the Olympics was a popular promotional theme at the 1964 Games. A popular Japanese cigarette brand, “Peace”, ran a promotion where each package was sold with a numbered premium ticket. This entitled anyone drawing a winning ticket to claim a prize of a further 365 packs. Even back in the 1960s, marketers realized that the Olympic rings could draw consumers’ attention to a product. Every packet of “Peace” cigarettes, carried the Olympic emblem.

Peace Cigarettes

Did these campaigns have an impact? Below is a chart showing smoking prevalence among Japanese men and women. Look at the mid 1960s and you can see leaps in consumption between 1963 and 1965. In fact, it appears that smoking reached its highest rates, almost Olympian heights, around those times. And now the Japanese are paying for it as mortality rates due to lung cancer have peaked in the past 20 years. Fortunately, smoking consumption among women has stayed flat over the decades, and thus so has their risk to lung cancer.

cigarette consumption and lung cancer mortality rates
Age-standardized lung cancer mortality and smoking prevalence, Japan, 1950-2010. Source: World Health Organization

No gold medals here.