On teen smoking, ads work both ways
The state's $54 million antismoking campaign, which relies on stark but slick TV commercials, is effective with teenagers, but new research shows that cigarette company ads are equally powerful in winning over new smokers.
Massachusetts' seven-year-old campaign to prevent teen smoking cut in half the smoking rates of 12- to 14-year-olds who absorbed the messages compared with those who didn't recall the ads, according to a study published today.
But the research also exposed that teenagers who can identify a cigarette brand and own a tobacco company promotional item, such as a T-shirt or cap, are almost three times more likely to become smokers compared with peers who don't pay attention to manufacturers' messages.
A Boston University researcher, Dr. Michael Siegel, said the new data make a strong case against Governor Paul Cellucci's recent proposal to cut the state's $54 million antismoking campaign by $10 million.
''The effect in these studies is so strong that it argues for increasing the state's antismoking advertising campaign,'' Siegel said yesterday.
The researchers said their results help explain why smoking rates among Massachusetts 14-to-17-year-olds declined from 24.6 percent to 19.7 percent between 1993 and 1999, according to preliminary state figures. Nationally the rates have been flat.
''The latest numbers show we are definitely turning the corner on youth smoking,'' said Dr. Howard Koh, the state health commissioner.
The newly found 50 percent reduction in smoking rates among young teenagers exposed to antismoking ads is ''a huge effect,'' said Siegel, who did the research with Lois Biener of the University of Massachusetts/Boston.
Other studies have found a 10 to 20 percent decline in smoking rates among either adults or children from various interventions, such as classroom education, cigarette tax increases, and state laws preventing tobacco sales to minors.
Earlier studies of advertising effects have been small and done in research settings. Attempts to gauge the effect of statewide antismoking campaigns on youth smoking have had mixed results.
But the new research, published today in the American Journal of Public Health, followed nearly 600 Massachusetts teenagers for four years to assess the impact of the state's campaign. None were ''established smokers'' at the outset, although almost 10 percent had experimented with cigarettes.
Over the four-year period, the state Department of Public Health spent about $8 for every man, woman, and child on its antismoking campaign.
One-quarter of the teenagers became habitual smokers during the study.
There was no advertising effect among older teens - those who were 14 and 15 years old when the study started. ''This suggests to us there is a critical window of opportunity to reach adolescents and affect their smoking attitudes,'' Siegel said. ''By 14 or 15 years old, many of their attitudes toward smoking are resistant to change.''