Study: Teen Antismoking Ads Backfiring

Teens Who Watch Some Ads Report Stronger Intentions to Smoke

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 31, 2006

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.)

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."

Parents Still Play a Role

Wakefield says her study doesn't suggest that it's pointless for parents to talk to kids about smoking. Instead, she says kids need to get the message that smoking is as foolish for adults as it is for children. Some tips:

  • The most important thing parents can do is quit smokingquit smoking themselves, she says: "Actions speak louder than words."
  • Forbid smoking by adults or children in your home or car.
  • Let your kids know you support antismoking laws.
  • Explain to your kids about how the tobacco industry has targeted children and concealed information about its products.

Califano agrees that the most important thing for parents to do is to model healthy behavior. More than just telling kids not to smoke, drink, or take drugs, parents must also become strongly engaged in their children's lives, he says.

"You need to have a fundamental relationship of trust with your child to send him any message, whether it's don't smoke, don't drink, or don't take drugs."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Wakefield, M. American Journal of Public Health, Oct. 31 2006, advance online edition. Farrelly, M. American Journal of Public Health, June 2002; vol 92: pp 901-907. Farrelly, M. American Journal of Public Health, March 2002; vol 95: pp 425-431. Donna Vallone, senior vice president, research and evaluation, and Joseph Martyak, executive vice president, marketing, American Legacy Foundation, Washington, D.C. Stanton Glantz, MD, director, Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, University of California, San Francisco. Joseph Califano, chairman, National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Columbia University, New York. Melanie Wakefield, PhD, Cancer Council Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. David Sutton, Philip Morris, Richmond, Va. National Institute on Drug Abuse: "Evaluation of the Office on National Drug Control Policy National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign," August 2006. 2005 Westat Study.
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