Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

College Students' Responses to Antismoking Messages: Denial, Defiance, and Other Boomerang Effects

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

College Students' Responses to Antismoking Messages: Denial, Defiance, and Other Boomerang Effects

Article excerpt

Despite the success of antismoking campaigns that aim to prevent young teens from smoking, this qualitative study provides strong evidence that different initiatives are needed for college students, particularly those who already smoke. When asked for responses to current antismoking messages, nonsmokers generally championed the cause; however, smokers often responded with anger, defiance, denial, and other negative responses. Consumers who respond in this manner are not well served by existing strategies, and money used for such campaigns could be better spent. New strategies are offered in hopes that antismoking campaigns can communicate more effectively with one high-risk group--college student smokers.


All the "truth" campaign does is convince me that I should go outside and light up another cigarette. (Participant #24)

... All smokers hate anti-smoking ads, whether they're good or not. They hate them because they love to smoke and hate being told not to do something. Every smoker I know has a no-smoking sign in their house to make a mockery of anti-smoking messages. (Participant #67)

I am going to have to die from something someday, and I like smoking, so why shouldn't this be my cause of death? (Participant #43)

These are the comments of college student smokers in response to the wide range of antismoking messages found in the media. Their anger and defiance make it imperative that researchers investigate whether these responses are isolated incidents or a widespread response. If anger and defiance are the rule rather than the exception, many of the antismoking messages that may successfully prevent young teens from starting to smoke may nevertheless be ineffective with college students who already smoke, or worse, undermine smokers' efforts to quit.

Despite the optimism that counteradvertising campaigns can be effective, comments from college students wave a warning flag that special initiatives may be needed for different audiences. Specifically, researchers must investigate whether the types of prevention efforts that can be successful with nonsmokers are either ineffective or change attitudes in the wrong direction among smokers. Using a qualitative approach to understand the realities of college student smoking, this study attempts to evaluate the effect of various sources of antismoking messages on college student smokers and nonsmokers, and to probe for insights into effective communication. It first considers the nature of the problem, social marketing campaigns, and responses predicted by risk models and psychological theories. It then organizes the data around a set of research questions and makes recommendations for the creators of antismoking messages so that their efforts achieve the greatest possible success and better serve consumers.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 46.2 million Americans smoke, despite the fact that smoking results in the death or disability of half of all regular users, with more than 440,000 deaths attributed to cigarette smoking each year (Targeting Tobacco Use: The Nation's Leading Cause of Death, USDHHS 2004). The onset for tobacco use typically occurs during adolescence, which accounts for the majority of prevention efforts being directed at preadolescents and young teens; however, some research suggests that the onset is later for some population groups including African American women whose smoking rates continue to increase through the twenties (Moon-Howard 2003).

Smoking is a concern for all individuals, but among college students it is especially problematic. With the transition to college comes the freedom to make self-initiated choices including the decision whether or not to smoke (Emmons et al. 1998; Patterson et al. 2004). Some college students experiment with cigarettes for the first time, and many who were occasional smokers in high school become heavier smokers as they enter college (Christie-Smith 1999; Patterson et al. …

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