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Tests of the tobacco industry's youth smoking prevention ads

Institution: Stanford University
Investigator(s): Stephen Fortmann, M.D.
Award Cycle: 2000 (Cycle 9) Grant #: 9RT-0138 Award: $343,044
Subject Area: Public Health, Public Policy, and Economics
Award Type: Research Project Awards

Initial Award Abstract
New anti-smoking ads from the tobacco companies deserve close scrutiny. In December 1998, the world’s largest tobacco company launched a national media campaign to prevent youth smoking. The $100 million ad campaign from Philip Morris USA features television commercials with the slogan, “Think. Don’t Smoke.” These ads currently air in top-rated programs on all major networks and popular cable channels during primetime, Saturday morning, and after school. In addition, approximately 25% of students in Grades 6 through 12 also see the Philip Morris ads in daily Channel One news broadcasts. Thus, it is imperative for tobacco control advocates to know what happens when the tobacco industry tells teenagers not to smoke.

Public health advocates warn that the tobacco industry’s recent foray into youth smoking prevention will backfire. In particular, the ad campaigns have been criticized for being more pro-industry than anti-smoking, and for using advertising strategies that are weak (at best) or counterproductive (at worst). Although the tobacco industry’s anti-smoking ads warrant careful evaluation, no empirical studies have tested the effects of these messages on youth. The goal of this research is to address concerns that the tobacco industry’s anti-smoking ads undermine California’s tobacco control education efforts. Specifically, we hypothesize that exposure to the tobacco industry’s anti-smoking ads: (a) does more to encourage than discourage youth smoking (a boomerang effect), and (b) makes youth resistant to criticism of the tobacco industry (an inoculation effect). Seventh and eighth graders will participate in two experiments designed to test these predictions.

To test a boomerang effect, Study 1 compares students’ attitudes and intentions about smoking after seeing four anti-smoking ads from tobacco companies, or four anti-smoking ads from the California media campaign, or four drunk-driving ads (a control group). The results will demonstrate whether the tobacco industry’s youth smoking prevention ads stimulate curiosity about smoking, promote beliefs that smoking leads to peer acceptance, or yield greater intentions to smoke. To test an inoculation effect, Study 2 will vary students’ exposure to anti-smoking ads from the tobacco companies and California’s ads that criticize the tobacco industry. Attitudes toward the industry, images of specific tobacco companies, and support for tobacco control policies are measured after exposure to one or both types of ads. The results from this study will determine whether exposure to the tobacco industry’s anti-smoking ads make youth think more positively about the tobacco industry and reduce the impact of California’s anti-industry ads.

This proposal addresses a pressing need to understand the effect of the tobacco industry’s anti-smoking ads on youth and the potential consequences of this advertising for the California media campaign. Ultimately, the proposed research will inform policy efforts to regulate the industry’s new advertising and to develop specialized counteradvertising to protect California’s youth.