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Study: Teen Antismoking Ads Backfiring

Teens Who Watch Some Ads Report Stronger Intentions to Smoke

Tobacco Industry Reaction continued...

In justifying the ads, the Philip Morris web site quotes a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University stating that "parents hold the most important key to their children's decision of whether or not to smoke, drink, or use drugs." Surveys by the center show that teens are much more likely to engage in these behaviors if they believe their parents don't care if they do so or not.

Yet the center's director, Joseph Califano, a former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, is a harsh critic of the ad campaign. "They're trying to run ads that subliminally are either useless or encourage kids to smoke," Califano tells WebMD.

Califano urges tobacco firms to resume funding the National Public Education Fund, which sponsors the "truth" campaign of antismoking ads. Those hard-hitting ads portray teenagers confronting the tobacco industry for marketing a deadly product and lying about its effects. In one well-known "truth" ad, kids piled body bags outside of a tobacco company's headquarters as part of a protest.

Studies show that it's the most rebellious teens who are most at risk of smoking, says Joseph Martyak, marketing chief for the American Legacy Foundation, makers of the "truth" ads. The "truth" ads "speak to that rebellion" by encouraging rebelliousness toward the tobacco companies, Martyak tells WebMD.

By contrast, the "Talk, They'll Listen" ads, "by telling parents to tell the child not to smoke, draw a line in the sand for kids who are looking for a way to rebel."

'Truth' ads vs. 'Talk' ads

A 2002 study, also published in the American Journal of Public Health, estimated that the "truth" ads reduced the number of children and teen smokers by 300,000 from 2000 to 2002. Another study in the same journal that year found a "boomerang" effect of the industry-sponsored "Think. Don't Smoke" ads targeted at teens.

Both studies included authors from the American Legacy Foundation, which created the ads. Foundation research director Donna Vallone says the studies are still valid because they went through the journal's peer-review process.

Tobacco companies were required to contribute to the "truth" campaign as part of the $206 billion settlement agreement they signed with states in 1998. Sutton says Philip Morris contributed more than $780 million to the Legacy Foundation. But the tobacco firms were only required to contribute to "truth" through 2003. The "truth" campaign is running with only 40% of its former budget, Martyak says.

The studies on the Philip Morris campaign are not the only ones to find a boomerang effect on ads targeted at parents. The ubiquitous "Parents: The Anti-Drug" campaign by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has also come under fire.

A 2005 study commissioned by the drug policy office and conducted by research firm Westat showed that greater exposure to the antidrug ads led to "weaker anti-drug norms" and "higher rates of [drug] initiation."

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