Billions of dollars are spent annually by tobacco companies to make tobacco use appear to be attractive as well as an accepted and established part of American culture. These tobacco advertising and promotion activities do much more-substantial evidence indicates that the tobacco manufacturers compete vigorously with each other for a share of the youth market. For more than two decades, the three most heavily advertised brands (Marlboro, Newport, and Camel) have accounted for more than 80% of brands smoked by adolescents.

Social norms play a significant role in shaping beliefs and behaviors in healthy and unhealthy ways. For example, survey data from California indicate that adult smokers with strong attitudes about the health effects and restriction of secondhand smoke are more than twice as likely to have made a recent quit attempt and to have the intention to quit in the next six months. Adult smokers who demonstrated strong anti-tobacco industry beliefs were 65% more likely to have made a recent quit attempt and 85% more likely to have the intention to quit in the next six months.

Adolescents and young adults are very sensitive to perceived social norms and media presentations of smoking behavior. Nonsmoking adolescents exposed to tobacco advertising and promotional campaigns are significantly more likely to become young adult smokers. Because adolescents and young adults have been and continue to be so heavily exposed to images of smoking in the media, tobacco advertising, and promotional campaigns, public health counter-marketing campaigns are needed to focus on preventing initiation and promoting cessation.

Public Education Campaigns

For years public education campaigns have been used to reduce tobacco use among the adult and youth populations.  In fact, several states have already incorporated public education campaigns into their comprehensive tobacco reduction programs.  Such campaigns have been found to lower smoking among young people by as much as 40 percent.

The truth® campaign

The truth ® campaign is the largest national youth-focused anti-tobacco education campaign.  The campaign uses television and radio advertising, grassroots efforts, and an interactive website to educate the youth population on the dangers of tobacco, including marketing tactics used by the tobacco industry to promote its products.  Several studies have attributed the campaign to a decline in youth smoking.  For example, in 2002 there were approximately 300,000 fewer youth smokers than previously reported.  Also, exposure to the campaign was associated with higher levels of anti-tobacco attitudes and beliefs.

Developing Effective Public Education Campaigns

To effectively reduce tobacco use public education campaigns must use the following characteristics:

  • They must use multiple channels to reach the target audience (i.e. television, radio, and print) that can be integrated into schools, community-based programs, and other elements of a comprehensive tobacco reduction plan.
  • Be well-funded.
  • There should be no restrictions on the content of the messaging.
  • The campaign should not utilize input from the tobacco industry.
  • Should contain a method for reliable evaluation and modification