Smoke signals: Young people need to hear the truth on tobacco

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Today is the Great American Smokeout, an idea born when smoking was more common and smoking bans were nonexistent.

A lot has changed since 1970 when people in Randolph, Mass., were asked to give up cigarettes and instead donate the money to a high school scholarship fund. Since then, the smokeout has become an annual, nationwide event sponsored by the American Cancer Society on the third Thursday of November, prevalence of smoking among adults has dropped from 37 percent to 19 percent, cigarette ads have been restricted and smoking has been banned in restaurants, workplaces and public spaces.

What hasn’t changed is the effectiveness of pro-smoking messages on young customers, whether through advertisements, point-of-sale displays or movie portrayals. Evidence from a recent study conducted among 134 Pittsburgh college students by the Rand Corp. shows that each pro-smoking signal sticks with the viewer for far longer than it takes to glance at it.

Rand wanted to understand how such exposure affected young adults, particularly because cigarette smoking is most prevalent among 18- to 25-year-olds, at 34 percent. The study demonstrated that the impact on behavior was strongest right after seeing a positive message and, though the appeal weakened over time, it still was a factor for seven days.

That may not be game-changing information, but it’s another argument for placing strong anti-smoking messages where young people encounter pro-smoking pitches. That’s one way to stop young people from taking up a habit that is the single-largest preventable cause of disease in the country.

The Great American Smokeout is a tool, too. Smokers should use it today to take that first step toward the healthier life of a nonsmoker.

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