HERE'S some evidence that the power of advertising may not...


April 05, 1994

HERE'S some evidence that the power of advertising may not be as strong as we think:

"The potential influence on teen-age smoking that most concerned policymakers is the role of advertising. Anti-smoking activists, congressmen, and the surgeon general have all argued for restrictions of one sort or another on the ability of the cigarette industry to tell consumers about its product, in the belief that the imagery accompanying such communications will lead vulnerable teens to take up smoking. . . The question is ultimately an empirical one that can only be answered by examining whether a teen's exposure to advertising messages influences his or her smoking decisions.

"A 1990 survey of some 5,000 California teens commissioned by the State Department of Health makes possible just such an analysis. Because cigarette advertising varied in different California cities, and because it changed over time, there was substantial variation in the amount of cigarette advertising that individual teens might have seen. . . If advertising influences teen decisions to smoke, teens in cities with more advertising or teens who were interviewed at times when advertising intensity was higher should have been more likely to smoke.

"In fact, they were not. Adding total cigarette advertising to [other] factors -- peer behavior, perception of the risks and benefits of smoking, family influences -- adds nothing to our ability to predict whether individual teens choose to smoke or not to smoke. Teens exposed to the most advertising are just as unlikely to smoke as teens exposed to the least advertising, once their other influences are taken into account. . .

"There is, in short, no reason to think that restrictions on advertising would have any influence on teen-age smoking.

"There is one policy alternative that has been shown to reduce teen-age smoking. Although virtually every state prohibits sales of cigarettes to teens under a certain age (usually 18), these laws are only weakly enforced. Studies of communities that have launched enforcement campaigns, however, have found significant declines in teen-age smoking. But calls for stricter enforcement of local ordinance simply lack the political appeal and potential for publicity available from attacks on cigarette advertising, hence their relative scarcity."

-- J. Howard Beales, in the March/April issue of The American Enterprise.

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