Effectiveness of Anti-Smoking Ads Questioned Big Tobacco's public service ads aimed at steering kids away from smoking could be having the opposite effect, according to a recent study by The American Journal of Public Health. So what sort of ad would work?

Effectiveness of Anti-Smoking Ads Questioned

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Tobacco companies are having a hard time coming up with a successful ad campaign to curb teen smoking. A recent study by the American Journal of Public Health found industry-run campaigns are not only ineffective but they may have the opposite effect and increase teens' likelihood to smoke.

So is just bad advertising? High school student Sarah Smith explores what the research says and what her friends who are smokers think.

Youth Radio sent us her report.

SARAH SMITH: Maybe you've seen Philip Morris's Talk They'll Listen commercials on TV. Their ads with clean-cut kids telling their parents not to worry about them smoking because they listened when their parents told them not to.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Female: So when someone says you want a cigarette, even if you're not there, your words are.

SMITH: Even though these ads are targeted at parents, the campaign is supposed to cut down on teen smoking. I did a little focus group with some of my friends who are smokers to get their reactions. Nineteen-year-old Drew Dickson(ph) thinks these ads are pretty stiff.

Mr. DREW DICKSON (Student): It's not real. You can tell, oh, you've hired some child actor to stand in the hallway and say, hey, I'm cool because I don't smoke. And I feel like I'm not exactly that. I'm different. I live a different life. So...

SMITH: Drew started smoking last year.

Mr. DICKSON: The reason why I smoke now is because it just really helps me calm down, it helps me when I'm anxious, which - I have a lot of anxiety attacks, and it helps me just be calm and get my thoughts collected and just make myself feel better. And I like the taste, and it's fun.

SMITH: Drew says the most effective way to get him to think twice about smoking is to give him all of the gory details about the health risks, not focus on popularity. A study by the American Journal of Public Health proves his point. Researcher Frank Chaloupka says the study found that Philip Morris's Talk They'll Listen ads influenced teen smoking habits in a surprising way.

Mr. FRANK CHALOUPKA (American Journal of Public Health): When it came to the ads that targeted parents, the ones that told parents should talk to their kids about smoking, these ads, if anything, had the opposite of the effects that you'd expect. Actually, it made it more likely the kids would smoke.

SMITH: It makes sense that these ads don't work. It's the ultimate reverse psychology to show happy kids who get along with their parents pledging that they won't smoke.

Ms. SARAH WILLIS(ph) (Student): I think that it's pretty stupid because most teenagers want to rebel or whatever, and you know, listening to parents or whatever is stupid or something, I don't know.

SMITH: That's my 17-year-old friend Sarah Willis. As a smoker, she's not surprised by the research that some ads might encourage smoking. Neither is Drew.

Mr. DICKSON: There are commercials that I have seen - anti-smoking commercials that I have seen that when they're done I'm like, oh, I could really go for a cigarette right now.

SMITH: Drew thinks there's no business incentive for tobacco companies to prevent teen smoking. I tried to ask Philip Morris about the results of this study, but a company spokesperson decline to comment on the story. One thing I did find out in my reporting, surveys of teens show that kids are less likely to smoke when they know their parents disapprove and they're monitoring their behavior. Still, if I had to make an effective anti-smoking ad, I might follow Sarah's advise.

Ms. WILLIS: I would probably just put in, you know, how much it sucks; it does suck. And it's so hard to quit, and learning other coping skills is better. You know, I wish I had learned other ways to deal with my stress rather than smoking because it's really hard to quit once you start and so it's worth not even starting at all.

SMITH: Research supports the idea that focusing on health effects like addiction is more effective at preventing teen smoking than trying to fight peer pressure. The American Legacy Foundation's truth ad campaign tells it like it is.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) You don't always die from tobacco. Sometimes you just lose a lung.

SMITH: For me, this ad has a much stronger message than any Philip Morris ad. I certainly don't want to lose a lung anytime soon, or ever, for that matter. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Smith in Portland, Maine.

MONTAGNE: Sarah Smith is a reporter at Blunt Radio. Her story was produced by Youth Radio.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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