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Study: Teen Antismoking Ads Backfiring

Teens Who Watch Some Ads Report Stronger Intentions to Smoke

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD


Oct. 31, 2006 -- What's the best way to convince a teenager that smoking is a great idea? Tell him his parents want him to stop.

That's the rather disturbing suggestion of a study of teens who had watched tobacco-industry-funded television ads urging parents to talk to their children about smoking. The study shows that these teens were more likely to have smoked in the past month and more likely to say that they planned to smoke in the future.

Researcher Melanie Wakefield, PhD, says she suspected reverse psychology was at work. "Any parent knows that telling a teen what to do can cause them to do just the opposite, especially if all you tell them is that they're too young," Wakefield, of the Cancer Council Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, tells WebMD.

Antismoking activists say the study proves that the tobacco industry can't be trusted to produce effective antismoking campaigns. "If Philip Morris was serious about preventing youth smoking, it would support programs run by organizations whose purpose was reducing youth smoking programs, not just pretending to do so," says Stanton Glantz, MD, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco.

View an Ad, Take a Puff

The study, published online today in the American Journal of Public Health, tracked three tobacco-industry ad campaigns between 1999 and 2002: "Think. Don't Smoke," a youth-targeted campaign sponsored by Philip Morris; "Tobacco is Whacko if You're a Teen," a much smaller youth-targeted campaign sponsored by Lorillard Tobacco Company; and "Talk. They'll Listen," a parent-targeted campaign from Philip Morris.

Wakefield and her colleagues matched television ratings that gauged exposure to the ads with surveys on smoking behaviors and attitudes among eighth graders, 10th graders, and 12th graders.

They found no association between increased exposure to the youth-targeted ads and changes in smoking behavior. But increased exposure to the parent-targeted ads was associated with a lower recall of antitobacco advertising and "stronger intentions to smoke in the future for all students."

The boomerang effects were strongest among 10th and 12th graders, who were also more likely to report a lower perceived harm in smoking, a stronger approval of smoking, and a higher likelihood of having smoked in the past 30 days.

For example, a 10th or 12th grader was 12% more likely to have smoked in the last 30 days for each parent-targeted ad they had seen over the past four months. The results were adjusted for factors such as race, sex, income, grade point average, and the price of cigarettes.

Tobacco Industry Reaction

Philip Morris spokesman David Sutton would not comment on specifics of the study. But he says the parent-targeted ads respond to research findings that "parents are the single greatest influence in their kids' decision not to smoke." (Lorrillard company officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.)

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