Countering Tobacco Use Among Young Adults: New Approaches Needed
For the tobacco industry, a 22-year-old who isn’t a smoker represents a challenge but also an opportunity, because while most smokers start as teenagers, only about one-third are fully addicted smokers by age 18. Young adulthood, typically defined as ages 18 to 25, is when many transition from light smokers to heavy smokers – or quit. If smoking hasn’t taken root by age 25, studies show, chances are good it’s not going to.
This young adult period, tobacco control researchers point out, is one of transitions in roles, responsibilities, and behaviours. Many of the barriers to smoking are gone: High school is completed, many people leave home for university or go to work and for the first time have an income and are able to purchase tobacco products legally.
Tobacco control researchers have agreed that new approaches are urgently needed to reach young adults with smoking prevention and cessation messages, because the best way for a smoker to avoid the enormous health risks of smoking, including cancer, is to quit at a young age.
Socio-economics are critical to smoking behaviour. It’s now well established that young adults with less education and often lower incomes are far more likely to smoke. Programs aimed at young adults with lower levels of education and income must become a high priority. To better reach young adults – and all smokers – the packaging and delivery of anti-smoking messages and cessation interventions has to improve.
To do so, explains Dr Orleans, a member of the public-private Youth Tobacco Cessation Collaborative, tobacco control and public health officials might want to take cues from an unlikely source, the tobacco companies.
“We have to use the same viral marketing strategies [as the tobacco industry], get online, develop connected communities, use the same approaches tailored to psychographics,” she says.
Psychographics, explains Dr. Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, underlie much of tobacco industry marketing.
“They do these extensive surveys that ask many different questions,” says Dr Glantz, who has studied thousands of pages of tobacco industry documents made available to the public as a result of litigation against the tobacco industry. “They would be viewed as unscientific questions: What kind of music do you like? What’s your favourite movie? Do you fix your own car?”
Using statistical techniques, Dr Glantz continues, the tobacco companies sift through the data “looking for clouds of people, who they are and what their smoking behaviour is, and their marketing and messages are built around that.”
Just as the tobacco industry uses psychographics to deliver its messages directly to targeted populations the tobacco control community needs to do the same, says Dr Orleans.
Some small but encouraging changes are already happening. Researchers in New Zealand and the United Kingdom, for instance, have reported some success with smoking cessation programs for young adults that incorporate one of their new favourite pastimes, cell phone text messaging.