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Smokers who see more ads for smoking-cessation products are more likely to quit successfully, study finds

The more magazine ads smokers see for the nicotine patch and other quit-smoking aids, the more likely they are to try to quit smoking and be successful -- even without buying the products, finds a new Cornell study.

"We think that the reason may be that important 'spillover effects' from advertising may be occurring, which has important implications for advertising for a wide range of health products," said Alan Mathios, professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell and a co-author of the study, published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Political Economy and winner of best conference paper at the 2007 American Marketing Association's Public Policy and Marketing Conference, May 31-June 2, in Washington, D.C.

Mathios noted that the results of this study may also apply to other types of pharmaceutical advertising. For example, when patients discuss with their physicians an advertised drug that lowers cholesterol, physicians will often recommend such health behavior changes as diet and exercise, creating a positive spillover effect from the advertising.

Using databases on the consumer behavior and magazine-reading habits of 28,303 current or former smokers and advertising data in 26 consumer magazines, Mathios and three Cornell colleagues explored the impact of advertising of smoking-cessation products on quitting decisions.

They found that although some of the increased quitting behavior involves buying smoking-cessation products, just seeing the ads makes it more likely that smokers will try to quit.

"Thus, the public health returns to smoking-cessation product advertisements exceed the private returns to the manufacturers," write the researchers.

Independent of the impact of advertising, smokers who do not read any magazines are less likely to try to quit, while smokers who read magazines that refuse cigarette ads or who read specialty magazines related to parenting or health are more likely to attempt to quit, the researchers reported.

They also calculated that if the smoking-cessation product industry increased its average annual spending on magazine advertising by about $2.6 million or 10 percent, the average smoker would see 2.1 more ads each year; according to their calculations, this would translate to about 80,000 additional quits each year. About 45 million people in the United States now smoke.

The results of this study raise questions about how direct-to-consumer advertising of smoking cessation products are regulated. Ironically, says Mathios, ads for prescription smoking-cessation products are more heavily regulated than cigarette ads because of mandatory risk disclosures.

In a 2006 study published in the Journal of Regulatory Economics, the same Cornell authors found that consumers are exposed to more ads for over-the-counter smoking-cessation products than those requiring a prescription. If all smoking cessation products were available over the counter, the two studies taken together suggest that they would be advertised more heavily and, therefore, lead to significantly more successful quits.

When smokers try to quit, at least two-thirds try "cold turkey" and do not use a smoking-cessation product. However, in recent years at least 20 percent of smokers who attempt to quit report using a pharmaceutical smoking-cessation product.

Other co-authors include Rosemary Avery, Don Kenkel and Dean Lillard, all at Cornell. The work was funded in part by the National Cancer Institute, Merck Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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Nicola Pytell