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Kids Can't Filter Cigarette Fantasy

Tobacco ads leave kids with positive view of smoking, says study

TUESDAY, June 12, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- In the battle between cigarette advertising and anti-smoking campaigns, it looks like kids are losing.

Smoking: Risk, Perception and Policy, a book just released by the Annenberg Public Policy Center from its Washington, D.C., offices suggests that young people still associate smoking with popularity and relaxation, despite the messages about the health risks of tobacco that are carried in anti-smoking ads.

Dan Romer, the research director at the Institute for Adolescent Risk Communication in Philadelphia, says that the research began after the $246 billion settlement that the tobacco industry signed in 1998 to end a rash of health-related lawsuits.

Romer says the tobacco companies had argued that they shouldn't be held liable because anti-smoking ads meant smokers knew the risks when they started. "We thought that that claim was a little too strong and needed to be investigated," he says, especially in young people.

In late 1999 and early 2000, Romer and his colleagues interviewed approximately 2,600 people between the ages of 14 and 22 and 1,500 people who were 23 and older.

Romer, who noted that most smokers start before they are 20, found that tobacco ads had a disturbing effect among adolescents. Almost 90 percent of the 18-year-olds could recall seeing a recent tobacco ad, compared to only half of those who were 50.

"[Adolescents] get a lot of very favorable imagery -- mainly through magazines and in stores -- that makes it look as though smoking is relaxing, fun and makes you popular," says Romer. That positive imagery is what drives kids to try cigarettes, he adds. "The advertising lays the groundwork."

Anti-smoking campaigns, meanwhile, tend to provide information about the risks of smoking at an intellectual level, rather than an emotional one, he says. "Young people can tell you that it causes lung cancer, but they're not understanding that at a level that will stop them from [starting] smoking," Romer says.

And although 80 percent of the smokers interviewed said they thought smoking was addictive, 60 percent thought quitting was "very easy or possible for most people, if they really try."

"The messages that we give people about quitting tend to be optimistic [because they target adult smokers]," says Romer, but when that filters down to kids, the message becomes that quitting is a snap.

Thomas Ryan, a spokesman for New York-based Philip Morris USA, says that under the settlement, tobacco companies can no longer advertise on hats or T-shirts, billboards or transit ads and they also face tough restrictions when sponsoring events. In addition, they can't use cartoon characters like Joe Camel to promote their brands. He says Philip Morris USA has reduced the number of magazines it advertises in by 50, and does not advertise in magazines that are targeted for readers under the age of 21.

At the same time, Ryan adds, the company supports programs that address low self-esteem and peer-pressure, which can influence a child's decision to smoke or engage in other risky behaviors.

"We believe the best way to address the problem of youth smoking is through more comprehensive efforts that give kids the tools they need to make the right decisions," he says.

Romer also says that some states, like Massachusetts and California, are trying to counter the positive imagery shown in tobacco advertising through their anti-smoking messages. Nationally, a campaign by the American Legacy Foundation suggests that tobacco companies manipulate young people into wanting to smoke.

But they face a powerful marketing adversary. In 1999, the five largest tobacco companies spent $8.24 billion on advertising &$150; up 22 percent from their budget at the time of the 1998 settlement.

What To Do

You can read the American Heart Association's position on tobacco industry advertising and youths or visit the American Legacy Foundation Web site about youth smoking.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids suggests that tobacco companies are targeting adolescents.

You can also check out the Philip Morris USA or R.J. Reynolds Tobacco company Web sites on youth and smoking.

Or, you can take a look at these previous HealthDay stories on tobacco and kids.

SOURCES: Interviews with Dan Romer, Ph.D., research director, Institute for Adolescent Risk Communication, Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Penn.; Thomas Ryan, spokesman, Philip Morris USA, New York, N.Y.; Smoking: Risk, Perception and Policy, Sage Publishing, 2001>
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