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Graphic Anti-Smoking Ads May Have An Unintended Effect On Teens

James Felton

James Felton

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

James is a published author with four pop-history and science books to his name. He specializes in history, strange science, and anything out of the ordinary.

Senior Staff Writer

This may not work how they'd hoped.

This may not work how they'd hoped. Image credit: Department of Health and Human Services.

Anti-smoking ads are getting more and more graphic in an attempt to deter people from taking up smoking and encourage smokers to quit the habit. 

Graphic anti-smoking adverts, showing real images of people with cancer or living with other negative consequences of smoking, are a fairly regular sight, whether it's online or in public on posters.  


You'd think that it would be a pretty simple equation. The more graphic images kids see of the negative consequences of smoking, the less likely they'll be to smoke in future. Unfortunately, a new study has found that may not be the case. 

In fact the latest study, published in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research, found that teens at risk of smoking are more likely to be at risk of smoking after seeing the posters.

A graphic anti-smoking ad, from the UK. Public Health England.

In the latest study, researchers from the Research and Development (RAND) Corporation recruited 441 kids between the ages of 11 and 17 and assessed their smoking risk (the likelihood that they'll go on to smoke in the future) using a survey.

They then sent them to a fake convenience store that they had created, made to look like the real thing. The fake store was set up in one of four ways when the kids went in. It always included one of the following:

  • No anti-smoking posters at all
  • A graphic poster near the cashier
  • A poster on the powerwall (the wall nearest the cashier, commonly used by convenience stores to display adverts for products, including tobacco products)
  • A poster on the powerwall and by the cashier

The kids shopped as if it was a normal convenience store. Around half were exposed to posters showing a photograph of a diseased mouth with the text "WARNING: Cigarettes cause cancer".

The poster used in the study. Department of Health and Human Services

Once they were done shopping, they were again surveyed to assess their future smoking risk. Surprisingly, in many of the teens, their future risk of smoking had changed after shopping in the store.

“We actually expected that the display of graphic anti-smoking posters in the retail environment would reduce smoking intentions among all teenagers,” lead author William Shadel told Fatherly. However, that wasn't the case.

They found that in kids who had never smoked, the risk of smoking remained the same. However, in those who were already at risk of smoking (around 5 percent of children who had already smoked, and a further 20 percent who were deemed "at risk of future smoking" due to their questionnaire responses), the risk of smoking in the future had actually increased after seeing the advert.


So why did this happen? 

The researchers have a number of explanations.

“It is possible that at-risk adolescents responded to the graphic warning posters in a defensive manner, causing them to discount or downplay the health risks portrayed in the poster,” Shadel said in a statement.

“It may also be possible that the graphic posters caused adolescents to divert their attention to the tobacco power wall, where they were exposed to pro-tobacco messages.”


Speaking to Fatherly, he also suggested that it could be good old-fashioned teenage defiance, rebelling against the anti-smoking message.

Whilst the team said that a shortcoming of their study is that they didn't try a variety of anti-smoking posters, they said they believe that efforts may be better concentrated on different anti-smoking policies.

“Our findings do suggest that policymakers should be careful when considering graphic warning posters as part of anti-tobacco education in retail environments,” Shadel said. “This type of action either needs additional research or potentially should be abandoned in favor of better-demonstrated anti-smoking efforts."

[H/T: Fatherly]


This article was originally published in December 2017.


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