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Big drive to reduce smoking is a flop

Despite almost $6-million (U.S.) in federal spending, Canada's biggest anti-smoking campaign has had virtually no effect on the behavior of young smokers, a federal survey shows.

The survey seems to cast doubt on the government's plans for another multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to counteract the effects of a big cut in tobacco taxes last month.

The poll found no significant difference in the smoking rates of adolescents who had seen the "Break Free" television commercials and those who had not seen them.

Another federal study into women's attitudes found that teenage girls were unimpressed by the anti-smoking campaign.

The messages were seen as "annoying and ineffective," a report said. Teenagers ridiculed the TV commercials, describing them as "stupid" and "unreal."

One of the commercials shows a girl who is transformed into a cigarette as she smokes. Another shows a Canadian performer singing an anti-smoking song. A third shows a boy in a shopping-mall food court who throws away a package of cigarettes after a girl asks him if he's a smoker.

Despite the evidence from the studies conducted over the past two years, the Canadian government plans to pour tens of millions of dollars into another TV campaign. The new wave of commercials will be the centerpiece of Ottawa's plan to spend $139-million (U.S.) on anti-smoking education, research and enforcement efforts over the next three years.

The campaign was announced last month as part of the government's attempt to reduce criticism of its controversial decision to slash taxes on cigarettes. So far, there are few details of the advertising plans.

Officials insist that the Break Free commercials have been successful in improving the attitudes of young people. They cite a 1993 survey in which 54 percent of adolescent respondents said the advertising "made me think about not smoking." (The survey does not indicate whether any of these adolescents were smokers.)

The officials acknowledge, however, that the TV messages have not directly affected the behavior of young people.

"Advertising does not change behavior," said Rachel Ladouceur, manager of social marketing at the federal Health Department. "It creates a social climate."

The government is planning to spend $9.75-million on anti-smoking education for "high-risk women," $7-million on efforts to reach young people and millions of dollars on other ad campaigns.

But the high-profile Break Free campaign, which has cost $5.85-million over the past six years, seems to have failed to reduce the level of smoking among those who saw the commercials.

One teenager in Toronto said she didn't know anyone who could relate to the lifestyle of the youths in the commercials. "It's kind of like a Leave it to Beaver show," she said.

Teenagers see the commercials as an example of the government "talking down to them . . . as if they were gullible, ill-informed and naive," according to a study based on round-table discussions.

The advertising is "sufficiently irritating to 16- and 17-year-olds to undermine the credibility of the government," the report said.