(CN) – New research shows that some teens exposed to graphic anti-smoking posters may actually be encouraged to pick up the habit.
The study, published Wednesday in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research, was conducted in a fake convenience store.
Teens who viewed gruesome posters depicting smoking-related diseases reported being more susceptible to smoking tobacco after being exposed to the displays, according to the report.
This effect was found among teens who had reported some desire to smoke before seeing the posters. The graphic displays did not appear to affect teens who had already vowed to never smoke.
“Our findings are counterintuitive and suggest that some anti-smoking strategies may actually go too far,” said lead author William Shadel, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.
The tobacco industry’s advertising efforts are focused primarily on point-of-sale retail locations like convenience stores. These shops feature multiple posters for tobacco products, signs announcing price promotions and the tobacco power wall – cigarettes and other tobacco products that are prominently displayed behind the checkout counter.
Previous research has suggested that most teens visit stores selling tobacco products almost weekly, significantly increasing their risk for repeated exposure to the advertisements. Studies have connected such exposure to more positive attitudes toward tobacco among adolescents.
For the study, the team had teens visit the replica convenience store to purchase a few items. Half of the participants were exposed to a prominently featured poster that showed a photo of diseased mouth and the words “WARNING: Cigarettes cause cancer.”
The poster the team used was selected from nine warning messages that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had planned to display on cigarette packages.
The study involved 441 young people aged 11 to 17 who were surveyed about their opinions on smoking cigarettes and other tobacco products both before and after entering the replica shop. Before shopping at the convenience store, roughly 5 percent of the participants had smoked cigarettes and about 20 percent were considered at risk of doing so in the future.
The team found exposure to the graphic anti-smoking poster appeared to compound the smoking susceptibility of the teens who were already considered at risk for future tobacco use.
“It is possible that at-risk adolescents responded to the graphic warning posters in a defensive manner, causing them to discount or downplay the health risks portrayed in the poster,” Shadel said.
“It may also be possible that the graphic posters caused adolescents to divert their attention to the tobacco power wall, where they were exposed to pro-tobacco messages.”
The team says that a shortcoming of their research is that they tested only one anti-smoking display on the participants and did not experiment with the size or placement of the posters.
“Our findings do suggest that policymakers should be careful when considering graphic warning posters as part of anti-tobacco education in retail environments,” Shadel said. “This type of action either needs additional research or potentially should be abandoned in favor of better-demonstrated anti-smoking efforts.”