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Messages That Cut Through the Smoke

Health: Governments spend millions on anti-tobacco ads aimed at teenagers. Now a researcher says she's found out which ones work.


Teenaagers have plenty to say about the attention-grabbing anti-smoking ads on TV today. They'll grimace and tell you the name of that smoker, Debbie, who appears on TV with a deep hole in her throat.

They wrinkle their noses when they think of Bob, who talks about his emphysema.

But they're not sure whether those ads actually deter them from smoking.

"You make your own decisions," said Carrick Railsback, 17, who was visiting Southern California from San Francisco earlier this month. "The ads don't have much effect on me, maybe only subconsciously."

It's tough to know if you're influencing headstrong teenagers, says Connie Pechmann, a UC Irvine professor who has just released a study of anti-smoking TV ads across the nation. She concluded that the commercials, which seek to combat national smoking rates through prevention, often are using ineffective tactics.

The question of whether anti-smoking campaigns really work for teenagers is especially important in schools and in communities where millions of dollars from voter-approved tobacco taxes fund anti-smoking education.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 22, 2000 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Tobacco suit--A story on Sunday's Education Page incorrectly referred to money going to states as being from federal litigation against tobacco companies. States are receiving money from suits they filed. Some state suits included antitrust claims.

To that end, the state Department of Education's Healthy Kids office provides information about effective, research-based teaching strategies to local school districts, said Administrator Gerald Kilbert.

Additionally, school districts receiving tobacco-tax education funds must survey their students' health behaviors, indicate how they will measure success and report their results to the state. The idea is to prevent the expenditure of money on well-meaning but ineffective programs.

"New research comes across my desk every day," said Marilyn Pritchard, who oversees anti-tobacco programs for Orange County. "We try and change our programs based on the latest information on what's successful."

Every day, nearly 3,000 teenagers pick up a cigarette for the first time and take their first taste of tobacco. About a third of them won't stop smoking for a very long time, if ever.

According to Pechmann's study, in which she had 1,000 Orange County youths look at anti-smoking campaigns from California, Vermont, Massachusetts and other states, it takes a special kind of campaign not only to get children's attention, but also to change their behavior.

"You have to have the right strategy, the right message, the right ad and the right spokesperson," said Pechmann, whose anti-smoking research is well read in California health circles.

For example, she said, it is best to stick to one anti-smoking theme, whether that be the dangers of secondhand smoke or the negative social perception of smoking.

For a decade Pechmann has been studying the way anti-smoking ads affect teenagers. She said: "You want to have a laser approach."

Teenagers agree.

"The ads all melt together in a big conglomeration," says Marc de Latour, 17, of San Francisco.

Also, messages should be chosen carefully.

"One good message is to stress that secondhand smoke hurts innocent victims," Pechmann said. "Kids get very upset by that."

The threat of secondhand smoke was the message in a 1997 California TV ad that portrayed a father smoking next to a toddler who spelled out negative health effects, such as asthma, with alphabet blocks. Pechmann said the ad hit home with youths, and they agree.

"It made me sad," said Stephanie Fiduk, 15, of Fountain Valley. "The dad didn't even know what he was doing to the baby."

Another message that works with kids, Pechmann said, is to say that smokers have chosen a bad path in life and are destined for trouble.

However, many of the more common messages, such as those that stress long-term health effects or cosmetic issues, are not nearly as effective, the study showed.

For example, a 1993 California TV ad that compared smokers' breath to dog breath didn't do the trick, Pechmann said.

"Kids know they can buy breath sprays and gum, so [cosmetics] is not a deterrent," said Pechmann.

Another element of the formula is to use the right spokesmen to reach teenagers. "You need to use young people in the ads to talk to other young people," Pechmann said. "People listen to spokespeople that are like them; they view the info as more credible and more relevant."


A similar principle often applies in schools, where younger students, who might ignore a teacher's instruction, might listen to an older student's message that smoking isn't cool. The Orange County Health Care Agency has drawn on this theory in elementary and middle schools, sending in older students to put on skits and deliver anti-smoking messages.

Pechmann studied campaigns that ran from 1985 to 1997 in five states and Canada. She took those ads to groups of Orange County seventh- and 10th-graders, who were asked to pinpoint the messages and the spokesmen in each of the ads. Pechmann cross-referenced those messages with smoking rate changes after the ads were broadcast to determine which messages had the greatest effects.

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