Joe Camel may be gone, but cigarette makers are still coming up with ads that have a greater impact on young people than anti-smoking messages, said a study released today.
Exposure to cigarette ads leads young people to identify smoking with popularity and relaxation, and these associations are stronger than any perceived risk picked up from anti-smoking ads, the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center reported.
The research was culled from interviews in 1999 and 2000 of approximately 2,600 people aged 14 to 22 and 1,500 people 23 and older.
In 1998, the tobacco industry ended a slew of health-related lawsuits by agreeing to make annual payments to the states worth $246 billion. The settlement also included restrictions on advertising that might attract teenagers. Among these were a ban on billboards and cartoon characters such as R.J. Reynolds' Joe Camel.
But young people still are exposed to cigarette ads in magazines, convenience stores and through promotional events in bars and restaurants, the report said.
Adolescents and young adults were more likely to recall cigarette ads than those over age 30. For example, nearly 90 percent of 18-year-olds recalled recently seeing such ads, compared with about 50 percent of 50-year-olds.
About 75 percent of 18-year-olds reported seeing anti-smoking ads. Such messages did increase awareness about the risks of smoking, but they did not stop people from trying cigarettes if other ads had already formed positive images about smoking, the report said.
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, called that an important finding. "Teenagers are less responsive to information about health risks than they are about the overall psychological view of smoking that's fostered by tobacco marketing," he said.
The report said young people had misconceptions about the risks of smoking. For example, it said 63 percent of young people incorrectly thought there were more deaths each year due to drug and alcohol abuse than to tobacco.
Of those questioned, about 80 percent of smokers said they thought smoking was addictive, but about 60 percent said they thought quitting was "either very easy or possible for most people if they really try."
"They have a misunderstanding of that, and that encourages them to try cigarettes without understanding that it's not that easy to quit," said Dan Romer, a research director at the Annenberg Center.
Romer said researchers considered exposure to anti-smoking ads that occurred in 1999 or earlier, which means that hard-hitting messages by the American Legacy Foundation were not part of the study.
The foundation was set up as part of the tobacco settlement to run an anti-smoking program estimated to cost $1.5 billion. One of its ads, disputing whether the industry had changed, was narrated by a man talking with an electronic larynx.
"The legacy ads increase youth exposure to effective counter-marketing but are not a sufficient response to the tobacco industry's $8.24 billion annual marketing budget," Romer said.
That is the amount the five largest cigarette manufacturers spent on advertising and promotions in 1999, according to the Federal Trade Commission. It was a 22 percent increase from 1998.
Philip Morris spokesman Brendan McCormick said some of that money went toward boosting in-store promotions. But he added that much of the industry's advertising efforts had been scaled back as a result of the settlement.
"The overall visibility of cigarette ads has been reduced," McCormick said.