CANCER
July 22, 2019

Big Tobacco's Failed Ad Campaign

When tobacco companies were ordered to pay for an ad campaign on the dangers of smoking, reaching vulnerable markets was not a priority.

In 2017 a U.S. district court ordered tobacco companies to run a series of anti-smoking ads as corrective statements, a means of informing the public about several decades of deceptive practices by the tobacco companies on such matters as the dangers of smoking and the addictiveness of cigarettes. The ads ran on television during prime time and in major newspapers for one year, beginning in November 2017.

The ads reached a much smaller audience than other anti-smoking ads from the past and do not seem to have been particularly effective. A recent study found that they were seen by only about 40 percent of adults and 50 percent of smokers. Contrast this with the first federally funded anti-smoking campaign, Tips from Former Smokers: it reached nearly 80 percent of smokers despite running for only three months.

Particularly troubling is that the ads reached even fewer young people and minorities, two groups tobacco companies target the most.

Putting tobacco companies in charge of anti-smoking ads is a lot like having foxes guard henhouses. It would be naïve to expect that advertisements featuring graphic images of diseased lungs or clogged arteries would stick in people's memories. But it was hoped that the ads would be viewed by many more people.

Particularly troubling is that fewer young people and minorities, two groups tobacco companies target the most, saw the ads. “Historically, certain ethnic groups and those of lower socioeconomic status have been targets of tobacco industry marketing, which has led to high rates of tobacco use and tobacco-related diseases in these populations,” researcher, Onyema Greg Chido-Amajuoyi, from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, said in a statement. “These at-risk groups should, ideally, have had the most exposure to these advertisements, but on the contrary, they have had the least.”

Exposure was lowest among people 18-34 (37.4 percent), those with a high school education or less (34.5 percent) and people with a household income of less than $35,000 (37.5 percent). Among current smokers, exposure was lowest in the Hispanic population, at just 42.2 percent. It's true that fewer people, especially younger people, now watch prime time TV, meaning that an effective anti-smoking campaign targeted to them might need to concentrate on other media outlets.

On the brighter side, indications are that the longer the ads ran, the more people they reached. The ads continue to be shown on cigarette packages and at tobacco company websites.

For more details, see the article in JAMA Network Open.

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