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Graphic anti-smoking ads can backfire on kids

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(HealthDay News) -- Graphic anti-tobacco posters intended to deter young people from buying cigarettes might actually have the opposite effect.

New research suggests that the strategy of hanging these posters in convenience stores could backfire, prompting some teens to light up.

The tobacco industry focuses much of its advertising efforts on convenience stores, which are popular with young people. Cigarette displays, other tobacco products and signs are usually placed on the wall behind the checkout counter.

Some states have tried to counter these promotional displays with graphic posters depicting the effects of smoking-related diseases.

For the study, researchers from the Rand Corporation created a replica of a convenience store to assess how teens responded to the disturbing images. The tobacco wall included a photo of a diseased mouth and the words "Warning: Cigarettes cause cancer."

Overall, 441 adolescents, 11 to 17 years old, were questioned about their views on smoking before and after they shopped in the fake store. About 5 percent of the participants had smoked before, and about 20 percent were considered at-risk for future cigarette smoking when the study began because they weren't entirely against the habit.

Some of the young people who shopped in the store were actually more tempted to smoke afterwards, the study found. This occurred among those who'd admitted originally that they thought about smoking -- not those who'd been sure they'd never light up.

"Our findings are counterintuitive and suggest that some anti-smoking strategies may actually go too far," said the study's lead author, William Shadel, a senior behavioral scientist at Rand.

"It is possible that at-risk adolescents responded to the graphic warning posters in a defensive manner, causing them to discount or downplay the health risks portrayed in the poster," he suggested in an institution news release.

"It may also be possible that the graphic posters caused adolescents to divert their attention to the tobacco power wall, where they were exposed to pro-tobacco messages," Shadel added.

Whatever the cause, "our findings do suggest that policymakers should be careful when considering graphic warning posters as part of anti-tobacco education in retail environments," Shadel said. "This type of action either needs additional research or potentially should be abandoned in favor of better-demonstrated anti-smoking efforts."

The study was published online Dec. 13 in Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

The Rand Corporation is a nonprofit institution that works to help improve policy and decision making through research and analysis. It focuses on issues such as health, education and the environment.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on teens and tobacco use.

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