Focusing on short-term effects can help prevent youth smoking
NEWBERRY COUNTY — Most smokers start early: According to the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General, nearly nine in 10 adult smokers first tried tobacco by age 18, and the progression to daily smoking is almost always produced at the age of 26.
For this reason, it is crucial that anti-tobacco campaigns reach adolescents and young adults. While anti-smoking messaging often focuses on long-term consequences like lung cancer and emphysema, a new study from researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication shows that focusing on the immediate negative outcomes of smoking and vaping – such as disapproval from friends or being a turnoff to others – may be a more effective approach to preventing and reducing tobacco and nicotine use among young people.
“Anti-smoking campaigns often portray the visceral, long-term health consequences of tobacco use, such as laryngeal cancer or tooth loss,” says co-author and Annenberg Ph.D. candidate Emma Jesch. . “Our findings suggest that messages aimed at young people should describe short-term consequences, many of which are social and sensory in nature, such as looking uncool or inhaling chemicals.”
Researchers conducted a three-year rolling survey of teens and young adults aged 13 to 26, measuring their belief in the potential short- and long-term consequences of cigarettes and e-cigarettes (commonly known as vapes), their intentions to smoke or vape, and current use.
The results showed that young people who strongly anticipate short-term consequences – such as disapproval from a friend, not liking the taste, turning away from others and developing headaches – had less intention to use tobacco products and were less likely to use them six months later, compared to those who strongly predict long-term effects such as the development of wrinkles, cancer and infertility.
The study also found that the same kinds of consequences that can deter young people from smoking cigarettes can also deter them from vaping. Worry about being disapproved by a friend was more strongly associated with intention not to use any type of tobacco product, indicating that anti-tobacco messages that focus on social norms and perceptions can be particularly persuasive when addressing a younger audience.
These findings suggest that focusing on the immediate and tangible negative effects of tobacco use can be a particularly effective approach to discouraging young people from starting to smoke, as well as persuading them to quit.
“Understanding what may prevent young people from using tobacco products in the first place is really important for reducing smoking and vaping rates,” says co-author and Annenberg Ph.D. candidate Ava Kikut. “Furthermore, quitting smoking may actually reverse the damage caused to cells by tobacco use. So examining what may encourage young people to quit may help reduce the long-term health consequences.
The study, “Comparison of belief in the short-term and long-term consequences of smoking and vaping as predictors of nonuse in a 3-year nationally representative survey study of Young Americans,” is co-authored by Jesch and Kikut, with Robert Hornik, Ph.D., Wilbur Schramm Professor Emeritus of Communication and Health Policy.