Using Market Research to Understand Health Behaviors among College Students

Article excerpt

Problem: Tobacco industry market research defines segments of college students by psychographic characteristics to inform marketing campaigns. This study uses a similar approach to define college student market segments and examines rates of smoking, drinking, exercising, and dieting among these segments.

Methods: An online health survey was completed by college undergraduates aged 18-24 (response rate 27%; n=801/3,000). Measures included demographic, psychographic (i.e., attitudes, interests), and health behavior variables. We performed a cluster analysis on ten psychographic questions and examined rates of health behaviors among clusters.

Results: We identified four market segments (Play-It-Safes, Traditional Intellectuals, Stand Alones, Thrill-Seeking Socializers). Segment was related to current smoking (30-day point prevalence), regular smoking ([greater than or equal to] 25 of past 30 days), drinking [greater than or equalto]5 of the past 30 days, and high-risk drinking (>5 drinks on one occasion). After controlling for age and gender, Thrill-seeking Socializers had higher rates of smoking (OR = 1.57, 95% CI = 1.06-2.31), regular smoking (OR = 2.54, CI = 1.30-4.95), drinking (OR = 2.44, CI = 1.65-3.60), and high-risk drinking (OR = 3.26, CI = 2.14-4.97) than Play-It-Safes. Stand Alones had lower rates of smoking (OR = 0.58, CI = 0.36-0.95), drinking >5 of the past 30 days (OR = 0.50, CI = 0.32-0.78), and high-risk drinking (OR = 0.44, CI = 0.29-0.68) than Play-It-Safes.

Conclusions: Cessation programs should tailor interventions to student segments with higher rates of smoking and drinking.

Key Words: Smoking; universities; health behaviors, market research


In 2004, U.S. colleges and universities enrolled over 14 million students, including 40% of those aged 18 to 24 years (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). The college years are a susceptible time for engaging in health compromising behaviors, including smoking (Rigotti, Lee, & Wechsler, 2000; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2006; Wechsler, Rigotti, Gledhill-Hoyt, & Lee, 1998), drinking (O'Malley & Johnston, 2002; Wechsler, Davenport, Dowdall, Moeykens, & Castillo, 1994; Wechsler et al., 2002), low physical activity (Huang et al., 2003), and poor nutrition (Huang et al., 2003). For example, while most smokers try smoking before the age of 18, increased frequency of smoking and establishment of regular or heavy cigarette use often occurs during young adulthood (Everett et al., 1999). This pattern holds true for other health behaviors, such as alcohol use, dietary behaviors, and physical activity (Huang et al., 2003; O'Malley & Johnston, 2002; Wechsler, Rigotti, Giedhill-Hoyt, & Lee, 1998). Thus, encouraging smoking cessation, responsible drinking patterns, physical activity, and attention to diet early in life is crucial to helping individuals avoid many of the long-term health consequences of detrimental health behaviors (Doll, Peto, Boreham, & Sutherland, 2004; Orleans, 2007).

According to the American Marketing Association, marketing is the "activity ... and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large" (American Marketing Association, 2007). The alcohol and tobacco industries have a long history of marketing campaigns aimed at specific groups, including young adults, defined by "psychographic" characteristics. These psychographic characteristics include future aspirations, activities, social groups, general attitudes, and self-descriptors which are used to profile a given target market (Ling & Glantz, 2002a).

Since 1998, over 40 million pages of previously secret tobacco industry documents have been made available to the public. In response to the unique opportunities for research resulting from the tobacco industry documents going public, investigators have substantiated arguments that tobacco industry marketing targeted youths (Hastings & MacFadyen, 2000; Perry, 1999; Pollay, 2000). …


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