In Brief

Never mind what the tobacco companies may claim. When young people start smoking, they do so based on positive feelings and images, not a cold calculation of the risks, new research suggests.

"As adolescents age, the sense of the risk of smoking declines and their positive feelings and images of smoking rise" says Dan Romer, PhD, research director of the Institute for Adolescent Risk Communication at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. "By creating favorable imagery, cigarette advertising lays the groundwork for smoking initiation in young people."

Perception of risk plays almost no role in deterring cigarette trial while exposure to cigarette advertising is positively related to taking up smoking, according to survey results in Smoking: Risk, Perception and Policy, published in June by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Young people associate smoking with popularity and relaxation, the survey results found, and adolescents and young adults ages 14 to 29 are more likely to recall cigarette ads than those over 30.

The book includes analyses of two surveys, conducted by telephone in 1999 and 2000 with more than 4,000 young people and adults, on the attitudes, beliefs, feelings and perceptions of risk that young people associated with smoking. It also explores the implications of the survey results on smoking-control policies.

Because antismoking advertising focuses on smoking risks without influencing the favorable images that motivate young people to begin the habit, much of that advertising has had little impact on preventing the initiation of smoking, the researchers note.

Young people, and even adults, don't consider the consequences of smoking and almost invariably come to regret it, says Paul Slovic, president of Decision Research in Eugene, Ore., and professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. Slovic edited the volume and contributed a chapter to the book.

"The majority of smokers, regardless of age, want to quit smoking and believe they will do so within the next year," he says.

When asked, "If you had it to do over again, would you start smoking?" more than 85 percent of adult smokers and 80 percent of young smokers said they would not.