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The Role of Social Psychology in Teenage Smoking Behavior


By Elaine Cassel

Of the $206 billion out-of-court settlement reached between 46 states and the major tobacco companies (Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard) in November, 1998), $250 million is earmarked for research into how to effectively change teenagers' smoking behavior. An additional $1.5 billion has been set aside for an anti-smoking advertising campaign. Social psychologists will play an important role in this process.

Social psychologists believe that attitudes about objects, events, and persons consist of (1) emotions and feelings; (2) behavior; and (3) thoughts and evaluations. Documents obtained from the tobacco companies disclosed that the tobacco industry well knows why teenagers start smoking--it is a rite of passage characterized by psychological reactance to what parents and the law forbid and conformity to peer behavior. So the industry's advertising gurus stressed that cigarettes be depicted as a forbidden product consumed in real-life settings garnished with a high gloss of sophistication and sex appeal (Federal Trade Commission Staff Report on the Cigarette Advertising Investigation, May 1981).

California, Arizona, and Massachusetts have already begun televising pilot ads to test viewer response. Each state has chosen a different strategy designed to appeal to the different components of attitudes (see above) and based upon existing psychological research into how to effect attitude change. Some California ads target the emotions of the viewer, as they vilify the tobacco industry by depicting tobacco executives as evil, greedy creatures enjoying the profits reaped at the expense of consumer health. Arizona's ads target smoking behavior, and depict smoking as a "totally uncool" habit, complete with smelly breath and stained teeth. Massachusetts appeals to the cognitive aspect of attitude, encouraging viewers to think about the adverse effects that smoking will have on their health (The Washington Post, December 6, 1998).

Advertising campaigns must target the three components of attitudes in order to be successful. Thanks to the largess of the research fund, social psychologists will be able to refine their recommendations for a comprehensive anti-smoking campaign. If the ads reduce the suffering caused by addiction to nicotine and the ravages of the cigarette's cancer-and respiratory-related health hazards, the ultimate benefactor will a healthier society


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