Get ready for a barrage of ads that will come at you with a singularly mind-blowing message: Smoking is bad for you. Not just bad for you. Really bad for you.
It's a fact that should be obvious to any sentient being, yet within the next year or so, not one but two federal agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration, will be newly pounding the nation's airwaves with anti-smoking ads -- as if it were a sure thing that you needed them. To be a smoker in 2012 is not only to ignore the biological reality that the habit will knock years off your life but also shrug off the cultural stigmas -- the dwindling number of smoke-friendly public places, the dirty looks -- and the fact that heavily-taxed smokes are priced at a point only a one-percenter could easily afford.
If we've seen a "denormalization of smoking," as the CDC describes it, do we need to drop hundreds of millions of dollars on a familiar message during cash-strapped times? If all those appeals to the brain, wallet and pride don't work, how will a bunch of ads?
As it turns out, anti-smoking ads actually do work. There's plenty of academic research proving it. And there's circumstantial, but no less compelling, evidence that in the absence of advertisements, smoking rates don't go down as quickly as they would without the nagging. And that entails its own costs.
Smoking's steady decline, which began in the 1960s after the Surgeon General's initial warning, has leveled off in recent years. Between 1998 and 2005, the adult smoking rate dropped 13%, but since 2005, any changes have been minimal. For the better part of six years, it has been at the 20% mark or just below. All-important youth-smoking rates declined 40% between 1997 and 2003, but between 2003 and 2009, that decline slowed to 21%.
Meanwhile, during those years funding decreased dramatically for the main national anti-tobacco advertising player, Legacy, the foundation funded by the 1998 settlement between tobacco companies and the attorneys general of 46 states. According to Kantar, Legacy's media budget between 2007 and 2010 totaled about $100 million. That's the amount Legacy would spend in a single year in its early days. And, at the state level, average household exposure to anti-smoking ads peaked in 2006 and 2007 and has been coming down since, according to a study of Nielsen data by the University of Illinois-Chicago.
"There's no consistency at the state level," said Eric Asche, chief marketing officer at Legacy. "And the general trend has been to spend less, not more."
Connecting the slowing decline in smoking with the steeper drop in anti-tobacco ad spending is to draw a broad correlation. It's a mug's game to chart smoking-rate changes directly to the rise and fall of advertising budgets. Media spending is not the only factor in smoking prevention, and probably not even the most important. That distinction goes to taxes. There are other factors, especially smoke-free-air laws that effect bans in workplaces and other public places. With all the activity, it's difficult to isolate the effects of advertising.
But there's no doubt that the leveling off of the smoking rate has occurred at a time when many states, amid deep cuts to tobacco-prevention budgets, are spending next to nothing on ads and have been getting little air cover from the national level. This is bad news when you consider how effective those ads have been.
Research scientists have been studying the impact of anti-smoking ad campaigns for decades, even before the "Truth" campaign launched in 2000, when the job was mainly the province of individual states.
Many have found what Sherry Emery, a health economist who has studied the impact of media campaigns at the state level, has. Ms. Emery said that analyses of youth and adult reaction "showed that higher levels of exposure to the state media campaigns were associated with less smoking and more anti-smoking attitudes and beliefs."