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Why Anti-Smoking Messages Often Don’t Work


Author: Shernide Delva

New findings reveal that public health policies targeted at smokers may not help people quit. In fact, they may have the opposite effect…

The findings found that smoking bans actually lead to defensiveness, stress and a drop in self-esteem among current or former smokers. These factors often drive people to resume smoking or smoke more. The feelings associated with smoking shame may push a smoker to want to smoke more. The study co-author Rebecca Evans-Polce, postdoctoral fellow, at Penn State elaborates more:

“Consequences of stigmatizing stereotypes ranged from increased intentions to quit smoking to increased stress to greater resistance to quitting smoking.”

In one study, 30 to 40 percent of smokers felt high levels of disapproval from their family and society and 27 percent felt people treated them differently because they smoked. In another study, 39 percent of smokers believed people thought less of them because of their smoking habits. In multiple studies, smokers described themselves with negative terms such as “leper,” “outcast,” “bad person,” “low-life” and “pathetic.”

According to some research, anti-smoking campaigns that instill terror actually backfire instead of help reduces smoking rates. In 2009, there was a study titled “Why The Death Makes You Smoke” and researchers discovered that death warning in anti-smoking ads triggered stress and fear in smokers. This fear does not reduce the craving to smoke because stress triggers cravings.

Those who argue for anti-smoking ads believe anti-smoking ads are effective in:

  • Raising Awareness
  • Preventing a Rise in New Smokers
  • Strengthening the Desire to Quit

To some extent, anti-smoking ads and policies are effective however there could be a better advertising strategy that could be even more effective. After all, these ads are not created by psychologists.

Tim McAfee, director of CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health said to USA Today that the ads for anti-smoking are inspired by smokers themselves. He mentioned:

“I wish we could make upbeat, happy ads, but that’s not what smokers said would motivate them to quit.”

What? So smokers are deciding how ads should be made? That’s like an addict coming up with their own treatment plan. People trying to overcome addiction are not equipped to come up with a plan of action to treat their condition.

Furthermore, smokers are usually not honest when asked about what would truly motivate them to quit.  Most smokers are against the idea of increasing the prices of cigarettes, even though research has shown that increasing the price of cigarettes has reduced the amount of cigarette smokers in the United States.

Smokers often go years saying they will quit one day in the future however, only 6% manage to succeed long terms. Quitting smoking requires will power and believe it or not, anti-smoking ads often deplete willpower.

The article continues by saying that “the right question to ask smokers isn’t what ads do you want to see. But what ads do you really not want to see, because that’s most likely to work.”

The article suggests that ads focus on a message that is more relatable to smokers rather than one that smokers ignore because they do not truly believe the consequences will happen to them. Furthermore, Sara Evans-Lacko, from the London School of Economics and Political Science, believes that the stigma of smoking actually contributes to the resistance to quitting. She continues by saying that smokers are especially vulnerable and would benefit more from ads that focus on the benefit of quitting but do not stigmatize the habit itself.

Anti-smoking ads come from a place of good intention but it is time to realize that alternative ways of targeting smokers should be utilized to see if they could possibly be more effective. Perhaps that could be a step in the right direction in reducing the amount of smokers out there.

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