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Anti-Smoking Ads Not Reaching Most in U.S.

Lit cigarette

(Ralf Kunze, Pixabay)

12 July 2019. A nationwide survey shows a majority of American adults, including half of those who smoke, did not see court-ordered anti-smoking TV or newspaper advertisements. Findings from the survey are reported by researchers from University of Texas – M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, in today’s issue of the journal JAMA Network Open.

Cigarette smoking continues to be a leading U.S. public health problem. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says smoking leads to some 480,000 deaths a year, or 1 in every 5 deaths in the U.S., including 1 in 3 deaths from cancer and 9 of 10 lung cancer deaths. Cigarettes, says CDC, harm most every organ in the body, are the cause of many diseases, and reduce the overall health of smokers. And the agency says more than 10 times the number of Americans died prematurely from cigarette smoking than in all of the wars fought by the U.S. in its history.

In 2006, a U.S. district court ruled that tobacco companies violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, and ordered the companies to run “corrective messages” for the public at large. In these advertisements, the companies are required to describe the harmful health effects of cigarette smoking and indirect or second-hand smoke, addictive nature of cigarettes, negligible benefits of smoking low-tar or “light” cigarettes, and tobacco company responsibility for purposeful design of a harmful product and deceptive marketing practices. The ads appeared on prime-time television and in major newspapers in the U.S., beginning in November 2017.

An M.D. Anderson team led by bio-statistics professor Sanjay Shete is seeking to determine the extent of these messages reaching the American public at large and key segments of the public who may benefit from the ads. The team drew their data from the 2018 Health Information National Trends Survey, a nationwide poll conducted by mail by National Cancer Institute in the first half of 2018. The survey asks about a family’s health in general as well as cancer-related topics, but also on sources of health-related information.

Shete and colleagues analyzed responses from 3,484 adult respondents, including 450 current smokers. The results show only about 4 in 10 American adults (41%) say they read or viewed these advertisements in the previous 6 months. Among smokers, only half (51%) report having seen the ads. In addition, demographic groups most at risk to start smoking were less likely than than the public at large to see the messages. These include younger adults, age 18 to 34, as well as with lower incomes and a high school education. From 34 to 38 percent of these groups say they viewed or read the ads.

“When compared to other nationally funded anti-smoking campaigns, the reach and penetration of these industry-sponsored ads were suboptimal,” says Shete in an M.D. Anderson statement. “Our hope, as cancer prevention researchers, is for more people to see these ads and to avoid tobacco or consider quitting.”

The authors say reported exposure to the ads increased as the year 2018 progressed, from 41 percent overall in February to 47 percent in May. As a result, the researchers recommend increasing the duration of the campaign, as well as expanding ad placement to more youth-oriented media.

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