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Sargent Charts Link Between Cigarette Branding and Youth Smoking

March 08, 2010
Lebanon, NH

Dr. Sargent

James Sargent, MD

In the next step of his research into the influences of mass media on young consumers, Norris Cotton Cancer Center researcher James D. Sargent, MD, and European counterparts report that cigarette advertising tempts teens overseas as well as their American peers.

The findings, from a 2008 survey of 3,415 German schoolchildren ages 10 to 17, appear online and in the April 2010 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Sargent collaborated on the study with lead author Reiner Hanewinkel, PhD, director of Germany's Institute for Therapy and Health Research.

After showing images - with all writing and brand logos removed - of six cigarette ads and eight other commercial products to the youngsters, researchers applied psychological assumptions about attention and memory to measure how readily the kids recognized ads. They then asked students how frequently the adolescents had viewed each ad image, and quizzed them about their smoking habits and plans.

"We were amazed at how often they had seen the images and could correctly recall the cigarette brand," says Sargent, a professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School and codirector of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Cancer Center. "For example, 55 percent had seen the Lucky Strike image and almost one quarter correctly decoded the brand."

After analyzing the data, the researchers assessed the likelihood that nonsmokers would try cigarettes, classifying survey participants as current smokers if they reported smoking at least once a month. Youths who had seen many tobacco ads were twice as likely to have tried smoking, and three times as likely to have smoked, in the previous month as those who had seen little or none, according to the study.

And much of the time, perception is everything.

"Cigarettes have created a brand for every personality trait," Hanewinkel says. "If you are looking to project independence and masculinity, think of the lonely cowboy in the Marlboro ads. On the other hand, if you're looking to project a desire for romantic relationships, and friendships are playing a role, then you will choose Lucky Strike if you are a man and Virginia Slims if you are a woman."

Exposure to tobacco advertising heightened the intent of "never-smokers" to smoke in the future. Outside variables included whether a youngster's parents or peers already smoke. The study, which comes as the United States and other nations consider partial bans on cigarette marketing, concludes that the relationship between exposure to ads and smoking behavior "was found even in a country with some tobacco advertising restrictions in place."

Sargent previously collaborated with Hanewinkel on a 2007 study in Preventive Medicine, which examined how scenes of smoking in popular movies influences young consumers in Germany. In 2009 in the United States, Sargent and colleagues at the University of Texas's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center advocated "R" ratings for movies with smoking scenes, in a study of the way Mexican-American adolescents respond to scenes of characters smoking in movies.

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