Thursday, December 07, 2006

Parallel messages, similar results

A recent New York Times editorial on the ineffectiveness of Phillip Morris’ anti-smoking ads bears more than a little resemblance to current debates about abstinence-only education for teenagers.

We’ve all seen the Phillip Morris ads saying, “Think, Don’t Smoke” and recent ads target parents, telling them to warn their children against smoking. In short, “just say no”.

A recent research study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that the ads have had no beneficial effect on teenagers and that those aimed at parents actually had an encouraging effect on teenagers.

The study found a direct relationship between exposure to the ads and likelihood of smoking in the past 30 days.

The New York Times observed that “their theme—that adults should tell young people not to smoke mostly because they are young people—is exactly the sort of message that would make many teenagers feel like lighting up.” The Times also noted that the goal of the ads is not actually to prevent smoking for a lifetime, but to put it off until adulthood, and that the ads have no mention of the fact that smoking is addictive or even harmful.

Likewise with abstinence-only education. Nearly two-thirds of US high school seniors have had sexual intercourse and there were 822,000 reported pregnancies among women 15-19 years old in the year 2000. While there is no evidence to show that abstinence-only classes changes this, there is evidence to show that education about contraception and sexually-transmitted infections reduces risk-taking and pregnancy among teens (see PP, Kaiser, ACLU, Guttmacher). And if the goals of abstinence-only programs are the same as the anti-smoking ads—to delay intercourse until adulthood (i.e. marriage)—then we will still have rampant ignorance about STIs, protection, and reproductive health.

While the motivations of the two campaigns may be different (those behind the Phillip Morris ads are looking to keep sales (i.e. smoking) up while “avoiding a governmental crackdown” and those preaching abstinence-only arguably do want to keep teens from having sex), each scenario, through the evasion of straightforward conversation and disregard for proven studies, threatens young people with bitter ends: lung cancer and AIDS.

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