Why Traditional Anti-Smoking Messages Fail

November 4th 2015

Kyle Jaeger

Anti-smoking campaigns that encourage cigarette smokers to quit might not be working, a new study says. In fact, negative public health messages about smoking make it even harder for some tobacco users to quit.

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While anti-smoking campaigns have evolved over time, those that highlight negative stereotypes are more likely to make smokers feel defensive, angry, and they can also lead to drops in self-esteem. The study, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, explains why anti-smoking messages frequently backfire.


After reviewing more than 600 articles on smoking self-stigma, Dr. Sara Evans-Lacko and her colleagues at the London School of Economics and Political Science found that stigmatizing cigarette smokers—either directly or through public health campaigns—might motivate some to quit, but by and large, it just makes tobacco users feel bad about themselves.

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"The stereotypes that smokers deal with are almost universally negative," Evans-Lacko said in a news release. She added:

"One study found that 30 to 40 percent of smokers felt high levels of family disapproval and social unacceptability and 27 percent felt they were treated differently due to their smoking status. Another study found that 39 percent of smokers believed that people thought less of them"

So what's it really take to get smokers to quit? You guessed it: positive anti-smoking messaging.

Whereas public health campaigns that focus on negative stereotypes often lead smokers to relapse, resist quitting, isolate themselves, and experience greater levels of stress, those that focus on positive messages (e.g. emphasizing how much money smokers could save by quitting), appear to be more effective.

That's also the conclusion that researchers arrived at in a focus group study published earlier this year on the effects of positive and instructive anti-smoking messages.

"Anti-tobacco messages recalled by study participants had not motivated them to quit smoking, and warning labels on cigarette packages were deemed equally ineffective. Combined with the preference for positively framed messages, more messages are needed that outline the immediate as well as the long-term benefits of cessation for older smokers."

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