To deter 10 million at-risk youths from becoming regular smokers, the Food and Drug Administration (or, FDA) has developed an initiative displaying the price a smoker pays. “The Real Cost” is the first youth tobacco prevention campaign by the FDA, and debuts nationally on February 11.
At-risk youths are defined as those aged 12 to 17 who are open to smoking, or have already had between 1 and 99 cigarettes in their lifetimes. An estimated 3,200 youths under the age of 18 smoke their first cigarette every day. For more than 700, smoking becomes a daily habit. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 88 percent of adult smokers say they began smoking before reaching the age of 18. Like the overall picture of tobacco use in the U.S., youth usage is down, but continued progress has leveled off in the past several years.
Industry user fees will fund the $115 million campaign, which incorporates television, radio, print, and online advertisements in order to educate youths on the dangers of smoking. Crafting the right message was critical for the FDA. The agency used focus groups to test its various messages, and consulted with marketing experts while creating campaign materials.
“The FDA has collaborated with some of the brightest and most creative minds to develop a multimedia initiative designed to make the target audience acutely aware of the risk from every cigarette by highlighting consequences that young people are really concerned about,” Mitchell Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, said in a press release.
“We have to be smart about how we talk to children about a behavior like experimenting with tobacco products,” FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D explained in a blog post. “So instead of sounding like yet another authority figure citing statistics or telling teens not to do something because it is bad for them, we dedicated significant time and research into creating something that will catch their attention. Our multimedia campaign is designed around visually compelling and personally relevant messages that will appeal to, and resonate with, teens at-risk for smoking.”
The goal is to shed light on consequences youths are not thinking about when they begin experimenting with cigarettes. One way the FDA chose to do this was by casting tobacco as a bully. Television ads depict the control cigarettes and smoking can have over a person — disrupting their lives for smoking breaks, and causing them to spend money on cigarettes. Print ads use this theme as well. One poster reads “Give me your money, Kid,” in bold, capital yellow letters. This statement is followed in slightly smaller white print by, “You wouldn’t take it from a tiny bully, but when you’re hooked on tobacco, you’re taking it from a cigarette.”
Damage to skin and teeth is another area of focus by the FDA. This approach, Hamburg said, “dramatizes the health consequences of smoking by graphically depicting results like tooth loss and skin damage to demonstrate that every cigarette comes with a ‘cost’ that is more than just financial.” Yellowing teeth on a postcard illustrates a negative cosmetic effect of smoking, while a poster showing a wrinkled face zooms in on the ways smoking changes how a person ages. Youths are also made aware of the likelihood of tooth loss and gum disease as a result of smoking.
But the campaign concerns itself with more than deterrents related to appearance and a person’s independence. One handout on health costs centers around diseases smokers develop, and the damages smoking inflicts on lungs. Another discusses addiction, trying to tear down the mentality of invincibility youths have in regards to health and life expectancy by stating that because a teenager’s brain is still developing, it may be even more difficult for them to quit. In the future, Hamburg says that ads “will target other audiences, including multicultural, rural, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths.”
For at least one year, the campaign will run in over 200 media markets. In order to evaluate effectiveness, youth data collection began in November 2013 in 75 media markets. For the next two years, the FDA hopes to follow a group of 8,000 youths, analyzing their knowledge of smoking and behavior toward tobacco-related products. This will help determine the campaign’s influence, and whether or not it achieves the specified goal of reducing youth cigarette smokers aged 12-17 by at least 300,000 in three years.
In a press release Tuesday, the American Heart Association applauded the campaign. “By zeroing in on issues 12-17 year olds truly care about, such as their appearance and control, the agency will force young people to examine the ‘real cost’ of smoking before they end up on a path to heart disease, stroke, and an early death,” the release states. “Youth tobacco use is a pervasive public health problem in our country, and one that requires urgent action. The American Heart Association is gratified that the FDA is playing such a vigorous role in the fight against this devastating epidemic.”