Scare campaigns don't work on young smokers: UC study

4 February: Young smokers know cigarettes are killing them, but this won’t stop them lighting up University of Canberra researchers have found.

Communication academics James Mahoney and Amanda Burrell examined university students’ awareness of anti-smoking campaigns and found fear-based tactics were the least effective way of getting the message across.

The pilot study, funded by ACT Health, of 234 first, second and third year students examined whether they smoked, their awareness of the risks, why they continued to smoke and which anti-smoking messages were effective.

Every student surveyed was aware of the health risks associated with smoking, but smokers wouldn’t give up because they enjoyed it, they couldn’t quit, they found it relaxing or their friends smoked.

“No one we surveyed said they didn’t believe smoking would harm their health and nearly everyone remembered some kind of anti-smoking message, so in one sense the campaigns have been highly successful,” Mr Mahoney said.

“But despite all the warnings young people are still smoking and we need to take a serious look at the way we’re communicating with them about this habit.”

The students surveyed were asked to rank the communication methods they felt were most likely to be effective. Young men responded best to television advertisements, while young women were more likely to respond to warnings from their doctor. Teachers weren’t seen as a credible source of information, while scare tactics were viewed with scepticism.

In a “surprising” finding, students who smoked socially or only when drinking alcohol tended to class themselves as non-smokers.

The researchers argue a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to health promotion is not the answer.

“Anti-smoking messages need to be written in ways that address the needs of young people and the reasons they smoke, rather than trying to scare them into action,” Mr Mahoney said.

“Different communication strategies should be tailored to smokers’ age and gender and spokespeople for the campaigns should credible to a young audience.”

Mr Mahoney is available for interview. Copies of the study, A Puff of Smoke: the effectiveness of anti-smoking campaigns among young Canberrans, are available from the University of Canberra media team.
Summary of recommendations:
1.    Future anti-smoking public information programs for young people should utilise messages and message delivery strategies that more accurately reflect the different ways in which males and females prefer to receive messages.
2.    Care should be taken to write anti-smoking messages in ways that address the needs of young people, and the reasons they smoke, rather than to simply scare them into action.
3.    Health promotion strategists should consider different tactics for implementing message delivery strategies for males and females.
4.    Spokespeople for anti-smoking campaigns directed at young people should be regarded by the target publics as professional and credible.
5.    Greater use of interpersonal communication in future anti-smoking programs, especially by formally involving doctors and other medical professionals, should be considered as a strategy for improving effectiveness.
6.    Primary and secondary school anti-smoking programs should be augmented by involving credible, local spokespeople.
7.    Future anti-smoking programs should be based on research that tests the effectiveness of messages designed for specific target publics, the strategies by which they will be delivered and the tactics that will deliver them.
8.    Future research based on the pilot should include respondents in similar age groups in the broader Canberra community.