PR Campaigns Beating Dead Horse on Teen Cigarette Use


By: Cody Church

Anti-smoking campaigns have the right message, but are targeting the wrong audience.

When watching, reading, or listening to any media content aimed at the teen demographic, chances are you will come across an anti-smoking PSA. Some of them are intended to be humorous, others are downright gut-wrenching – but the message they are sending, despite their differences, is very clear: smoking is burdensome, expensive, dangerous, and not worth the risk. The PSAs, over many decades, have completely changed the way Americans perceive cigarettes and other tobacco products and the message has been received loud and clear by teens and young adults. But the question is, knowing the negative impacts and seeing the horror stories, why do teens continue to smoke?

Robin Koval, CEO of anti-smoking nonprofit Legacy, told Fox News, “Kids accept and know that heavy smoking is really, really bad for you, but what they’re not so aware of is that light and intermittent smoking is also really bad for you.” This makes sense. When the Obama Administration was rolling out the Affordable Care Act, one of the talking points staffers mentioned in every interview, and PR teams incorporated into every advertisement, was the idea of “young and invincible” millennials. The term is not meant to be endearing or uplifting, but rather to convince younger demographics that although their choices may not impact their health immediately, it will eventually catch up to them. The point Ms. Koval makes fits perfectly with the idea of “young and invincible” millennials, but it also raises a question worth asking: with current ads being aimed to directly contradict this idea, why is teen smoking still an issue? Are the advertisements really effective at persuading teens to quit smoking? Will there be a point when the advertisements reach their peak effectiveness and cease to be persuasive?

In a 2007 post on their website, the aforementioned anti-smoking nonprofit Legacy examined then recent CDC study results. “These findings mirror similar recent data showing that adolescent smoking rates are…flat-lining.” The trend has not changed since then.

So the campaigns are doing an amazing job persuading potential new smokers from staying away from cigarettes, but why have the rates flat-lined?

A recent study originally published in the journal Pediatrics offers new research that can hopefully help anti-smoking organizations develop their next round of advertisements aimed at a new target audience: parents. The study found that teens are more likely to take up smoking if their parents also smoke.

This would account for the flat-lining rates of teen smoking in the US. Teens who did not grow up around cigarettes are less likely to make the decision to try them, once they see the ads. But for teens who are used to the presence of cigarettes, the decision of them to take up smoking is a much easier one. This could be for several reasons. Perhaps the ads and their current “don’t try it message” simply doesn’t register well because teens very likely still have living parents that smoke. They perceive the ads as horror stories or propaganda, which limits their effectiveness. Or perhaps, and possibly more likely, teens who grew up with smoking family members are simply desensitized to the issue because smoking is a social norm they are familiar with. Regardless, these teens are not being reached by the current message the anti-smoking groups are sending.

So why not target parents? Messages along the lines of “children emulate what they see from their parents, so set a good example.”

If parents are convinced to stop smoking for the sake of their children, the “hereditary” state of smoking will cease to exist. Even if parents don’t completely stop smoking, perhaps the ads could persuade them to smoke far away from their kids – out of sight. Or if that doesn’t work, it could also remind parents to inform their kids from a young age not to take up smoking as they did, citing the dangers and inconvenience associated with the habit.

Maternal and paternal instincts are two of the oldest and strongest instincts we as humans have, and it is about time advertisements take aim at it. Smoking is not a hereditary trait, and the current transmission of this habit can be reversed with a well-coordinated and tactful campaign aimed to do just that.