Drug Education News

News and views from the Drug Education Forum

Forever cool: the influence of smoking imagery on young people

forever-coolI’m grateful to my colleague bringing my attention to a paper from the BMA about tobacco marketing and young people. I’d caught the way the Guardian reported it but somehow not seen the report when it came out in July.

The main thrust of the paper is to describe what they call pro-smoking imagery which impacts on young people. They characterise this coming from three sources:

  1. Young people see other people (parents, peers and public figures) smoking.
  2. Films, television and printed media.
  3. Tobacco industry marketing.

Perhaps understandably the media coverage of the recommendations the paper makes to government focused on the suggestion that all films that portray smoking should automatically receive an 18 certificate. But as always there is much more to what they’d have liked government to do.

The BMA hasn’t always been a friend to drug education but on this occasion they have some positive things to say:

A ‘social norms’ approach to mass media tobacco control policy is also required. Misleading social cues can lead young people to acquire distorted descriptive and injunctive norms about smoking; and thus exaggerate the prevalence and acceptability of the habit. It is well established that when perceived norms of either type vary from actual norms in favour of a particular habit – in this case smoking – young people are significantly more likely to take up and continue with that habit. Research has found denormalisation programmes to be effective in schools and through the media. A seven-county campaign directed at 12 to 17-year-olds in Montana successfully reduced smoking prevalence and delayed smoking uptake using the normative message ‘Most of Us (70%) are Tobacco Free’ This was delivered using a wide variety of channels that research had identified as useful. Only 10 per cent of young people initiated smoking following the campaign, compared with 17 per cent in the control counties. At the Wisconsin University at Oshkosh, a 29 per cent reduction in smoking rates was achieved from a multi-component intervention which included a normative media campaign. Significantly, rates at a control campus remained unchanged.

Denormalising tobacco use requires the implementation of interventions aimed at improving descriptive norms. These would emphasise the fact that smoking is very much a minority pursuit, and that even among smokers, most are ambivalent about their habit. Reinforcing this message is likely to be particularly important in low income communities where higher prevalence rates may create particularly false impressions about the normalcy of smoking. It is therefore essential that normative messages are considered as part of any public education tobacco control programmes.

Normative programmes also need to move beyond media and education interventions. As the 2008 Scottish Smoking Prevention Action Plan states, there is a need ‘to facilitate the adoption of a holistic approach to health and well-being in Scottish schools …, which will be aimed at ensuring the school ethos, policies, services and extra-curriculum activities all foster the health and wellbeing of all the pupils’. Such comprehensive strategies need to extend into the wider community…

They also call for more pro-health imagery and recommend that the government:

  • implement a sustained population-wide communications programme promoting antismoking messages and imagery. This should include normative messages about smoking, utilise a range of media formats, and link with international activity and wider initiatives.
  • establish an independent body, comprising key public and non-governmental organisations, to take responsibility for the development and delivery of this communications programme.
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Filed under: drug education, tobacco,

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