Counter-advertising may change smokers' beliefs

April 23, 2000

Public health campaigns may be an effective way to get the word out about the dangers of "light" and "ultra-light" cigarettes, according to a preliminary analysis of a Massachusetts campaign.

"Our findings suggest that advertising campaigns can change important beliefs about smoking," said lead author Lynn T. Kozlowski, PhD, of the Department of Biobehavioral Health, at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

Kozlowski and colleagues surveyed 500 smokers and ex-smokers in Massachusetts, where an anti-smoking media campaign was conducted, and compared these results with a survey of 501 smokers and ex-smokers from other U.S. states.

The only state agency to embark on an anti-smoking media campaign against low-tar cigarettes, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health ran two television advertisements beginning in 1994 that focused on light cigarettes.

One ad explained how cigarettes labeled "low-tar" can be quite the opposite when their filters do not function properly; another ad used the symbol of a skull and crossbones to warn smokers about light cigarettes.

Low-tar, or light, cigarettes are sometimes thought to be safer than regular cigarettes, but this claim has yet to be proven, according to the researchers.

"From a regulatory perspective, use of names 'light' and 'ultra-light' should be banned until evidence exists that they substantially reduce risks to public health," said Kozlowski.

Compared with the Massachusetts respondents, 332 of whom had seen the anti-lights ads, the U.S. survey respondents were more likely to believe that lights had a chance of reducing health risks, the researchers found. Their results appear in the May 2000 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The Massachusetts group contained more recent ex-smokers than the U.S. group, as well as more high-tar cigarette smokers. The findings may reflect a greater awareness in Massachusetts that low-tar cigarettes are no better for health than high-tar, the researchers speculated.

When they focused their analysis on the Massachusetts sample alone, the researchers noted that the 332 respondents who had seen the anti-lights ads were less likely to think light cigarettes decreased health risks and more likely to be aware of problems associated with light cigarette filters than Massachusetts respondents who had not seen the ads.

"Many smokers think that some cigarettes are less risky than others, yet the reality of this is doubtful," said Kozlowski. "Targeted advertising can correct this possibly serious misunderstanding."

"Because the cigarette industry promotes light and ultra-light cigarettes to keep health-concerned smokers smoking, the public health community should support counter-marketing these cigarettes," she added.

Data collection for this project was supported by funding from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
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The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, sponsored by the Association of Teachers of Preventive Medicine and the American College of Preventive Medicine, is published eight times a year by Elsevier Science. The Journal is a forum for the communication of information, knowledge, and wisdom in prevention science, education, practice, and policy. For more information about the journal, contact the editorial office at 619-594-7344.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health <http://www.cfah.org>. For information about the Center, call Petrina Chong, <pchong@cfah.org> 202-387-2829.
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