Color teen smokers blue and vulnerable

Audrain

Beside Audrain-McGovern are samples of the tobacco industry’s best efforts to lure young smokers.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

So why is it that more than one in every three adolescents currently smoke?

Janet Audrain-McGovern, professor of psychology in psychiatry, is one of a team of researchers at Penn and Georgetown University who are in search of answers to that question. Her latest study, published in the March issue of the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, suggests that while the effects of tobacco advertising have something to do with the rate of teenage smoking, advertising is not the only influence that gets teens to light up.

The study found that depressed adolescents who are highly receptive to tobacco advertising are much more likely to try smoking than other teens.

“For youth who are depressed, the ads may have more meaning,” Audrain-McGovern said. “They often show people in groups, always happy, doing things that are fun.”

Audrain-McGovern and her research team gathered their data from an ongoing study of 1,100 high-school students in northern Virginia. The students, who were in the ninth grade when the research project began in 1999, are surveyed periodically about their smoking behavior and other factors that may contribute to smoking, such as exposure to other smokers, levels of depression and receptivity to tobacco ads.

Besides depression and receptivity to tobacco-ad messages, exposure to peer smoking also makes it more likely that adolescents would experiment with smoking.

A former smoker herself, Audrain-McGovern is well aware of the ways tobacco companies manipulate impressionable young minds, and she applauds anti-smoking ad campaigns such as the current “truth” series, funded by tobacco settlement money through the American Legacy Foundation. The television ads spoof tobacco marketing campaigns and use in-your-face images, like a man dressed as a dead rat lying on a New York sidewalk.

“We’ve known from prior work that when we point out the manipulation, youth do respond positively to anti-smoking messages,” she said.

What researchers do not know yet is whether those responses translate into decreased smoking. “We’re currently collecting pilot data to see whether youth are looking at the ‘truth’ ads and whether this is affecting their decisions to smoke.

“Thus far, a lot of teens respond that they do recall the ads and like them. As for what they’re doing with their cigarettes [in response], we don’t know that yet.”

Audrain-McGovern noted that just as no single factor can explain why a teenager starts smoking, no single strategy will help them stop or keep them from starting in the first place.

“Programs in the past have worked on teens’ attitudes towards smoking, making it less glamorous. But these programs have not been successful at preventing smoking, so we went back to the drawing board.

“We have to do more than just changing their attitude [towards smoking], educating them about tobacco-industry manipulation or teaching them the skills they need to say no when someone offers them a cigarette.”

Originally published on May 9, 2002