Pro-tobacco messages smolder in young minds

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Inside a convenience store, a young adult buys a soft drink and snack while looking askance at a pro-tobacco advertisement before paying the cashier and heading out the door.

No tobacco is purchased. So what's the problem?

A Pittsburgh-based study has found that exposure to pro-tobacco ads and media messages can smolder in the younger brain like a lit cigarette. But the real surprise is that one pro-tobacco message can heighten the young adult's attention to smoking for up to seven days.

Yes, cigarette and tobacco ads work -- and for a longer span than previously thought.

That's the takeaway message of a Rand Corp. study published today in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

"We were surprised at how long the influence of pro-smoking messages lasted," said Steven Martino, Rand senior behavioral scientist. "This suggests that it isn't something that is fleeting. It can be something long-lasting. We detected an increase in intentions to smoke at the time they were exposed, with increased attention to it for up to seven days."

Concern doesn't end once the young adult leaves the store.

"This study confirms our beliefs that the [younger] population is vulnerable and primed to respond positively to messages that give them permission to step outside the boundaries that have been set for them," said Tim Cline, senior director of clinical training and development for the UPMC Health Plan. "Just a single exposure to a tobacco message can derail them from intentions not to smoke and impact them for seven days, by the measures of this study.

"What's really scary is to think that while the tobacco industry may not have done this exact study, they know the information well and have been leveraging it for some period of time with images coming through action and thriller movies and sporting events -- and by socializing tobacco with hookah bars and cigarettes flavored with bubble gum and tutti-frutti that says, 'Kids, this is for you.' "

Rand says 18- to 25-year-olds use tobacco at a rate nearly 50 percent higher than either high school seniors or adults older than 26. Prior research shows that greater exposure to pro-smoking messages raises the risk that young adults will experiment with smoking or progress to regular tobacco use.

"Our study provides evidence about how that happens," said Claude M. Setodji, lead author and senior statistician at Rand, a nonprofit that does research and analysis on public issues with a focus on public policy.

The 1970 Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act bans television and radio advertising of tobacco products, but the industry has many venues to advertise its products. On Thursday, the Great American Smokeout will be held, an annual event sponsored by the American Cancer Society to encourage people to attempt to quit smoking.

The Rand study included 134 college students, 18 to 24 years old, and included smokers and nonsmokers. Each was given a hand-held device to document exposure to pro-smoking advertisements or messages for three weeks during the regular course of the day. Upon each exposure, the participant recorded his or her inclination to smoke and ability to refuse tobacco. The device also prompted reactions at times when they were not exposed to pro-tobacco messages.

Participants reported 1,112 total exposures to pro-tobacco media messages during the three weeks -- more than eight times each.

The findings also suggest that continued exposure to pro-tobacco messages can have a cumulative effect and boost a person's inclination to smoke, Mr. Martino said. "This could explain why exposure to these media messages can have an enduring effect on people's attitudes and behaviors toward smoking."

Smoking among the nation's youth declined from 2011 and 2012, but consumption of nonconventional tobacco products, such as electronic cigarettes and water pipes known as hookahs, increased.

Mr. Cline, who holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology, said cigarette smoking is the single most preventable cause of premature death and disability.

"This is the first study of its genre to look at the effect of smoking in the media in real, live situations, not in the laboratory," he said. "It is the first up-close and personal study of what's really happening in that age group, and the results are a little frightening."


David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.

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