Anti-Youth-Smoking Ads May Have Opposite Effect

Ads urging parents to discourage smoking made youths more likely to approve of it, a study found.
Ads urging parents to discourage smoking made youths more likely to approve of it, a study found. (By Bob Brown -- Associated Press)
Wednesday, November 1, 2006

The surest way to get teenagers to do something is to tell them not to.

That principle appears to apply to some smoking-prevention ads created by tobacco companies, a new study has found.

Youngsters 12 to 17 were less likely to see smoking as harmful and had stronger intentions to smoke after the airing of television ads that urged parents to talk to their children about not lighting up, according to the study to be published in December in the American Journal of Public Health. The slogan of the national campaign, begun in 1999 by cigarette industry leader Philip Morris USA, was "Talk. They'll listen."

Researchers gauged the effect of the ads by analyzing television ratings from 75 U.S. media markets and data from an annual national survey of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders from 1999 to 2002.

Eighth-graders likely to have seen the ads targeted at parents were more likely to believe that the dangers of smoking had been exaggerated and more likely to say they planned to smoke, the study found. Older teenagers also expressed stronger approval of smoking and were more likely to have smoked in the 30 days before the school survey.

In the ads, "no reason beyond simply being a teenager is offered as to why youths should not smoke," wrote the researchers, led by Melanie Wakefield of the Cancer Council Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.

Smoking-prevention ads that tobacco companies targeted at kids themselves appeared to have no effect either way, the study found.

Dave Sutton, a Philip Morris USA spokesman, said the ads had been tested to make sure no unintended message was sent. Of parents who saw at least one ad, 61 percent talked to their children about not smoking, he said.

"We have found nothing through our research to indicate that the study's conclusions are valid," Sutton said. Still, the company is open to "collaborative dialogue" with public health experts on how to improve the campaign, he said.

-- Christopher Lee

© 2006 The Washington Post Company