Smoking is bad. Anyone younger than the age of 35 has had this message hammered into their head since elementary school. You shouldn’t smoke, they say. Smoking causes cancer and a host of other diseases, they say. Still, every day, more than 3,000 kids younger than the age of 18 smoke for the first time, and 700 kids become new regular, daily smokers. That first puff leads to a second that ultimately leads to a lifelong addiction and cycle of trying to quit. But why? Where does the message get lost? Is it a failure to communicate in a way that kids hear us? Whatever the reason, we have to keep trying. We have to keep trying to reach those who have never smoked (to prevent them from starting), and we have to keep trying to reach those who are current smokers.
Today is national Kick Butts Day, which is a day dedicated to activism against tobacco and designed to encourage young people to “stand out, speak up, and seize control over Big Tobacco.” For the past 19 years, the United Health Foundation has encouraged teachers, youth leaders, and health communicators all across the country to organize events to protect children from tobacco and encourage them to stay tobacco free.
Kick Butts Day has given rise to awareness events from marches in Boston to show support for the governor’s proposed tobacco tax that was later passed to presentations requesting smoke-free public parks in Neptune, NJ. Although these efforts have made a difference in individual communities, enhanced efforts to communicate the danger of tobacco to young people are needed. To be effective, we must break through all of the noise and messages that teenagers hear and see every day.
With this in mind, the FDA recently embarked on its first ever campaign specifically targeted at preventing tobacco use among teenagers. The campaign, coined “The Real Cost,” launched in February and targets young people between the ages of 12 and 17 with the goal of reducing the rate at which young people start experimenting with cigarettes.
After years of anti-smoking efforts, health communicators have finally realized that the reason teenagers aren’t listening to the “smoking kills” message is because teenagers don’t think they will die—ever, of any cause, let along from cigarette smoking. Young people often consider themselves to be invincible, and traditional scare tactics haven’t worked—and won’t work—on them. Recognizing this, the Real Cost campaign focuses on two things the FDA hopes will resonate with this crowd: cosmetic consequences such as tooth loss and skin damage, and loss of control (as demonstrated by tobacco addiction’s control over a person).
The National Cancer Institute’s Smokefree Teen campaign takes a similar approach of empowerment and control over one’s decisions. However, Smokefree teen differs in that it targets teenagers who are smokers and provides them the tools and support to quit and make healthy decision. Full of helpful information about moods and relationships, including how to “break up” with cigarettes, set a quit date, and learn to identify what triggers a person to smoke, Smokefree Teen provides a unique voice in the field of public health communication.
Will these campaigns manage to reach teenagers? Can our messages convince teens to quit smoking, or even better, never start smoking? Time will tell.