The Peer Pressure of Social Media to Smoke Put on the Youngsters

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How has Social Media Affected Tobacco Prevention Programs Among Young Adults?

Personal Preface

Tobacco use is an extremely prevalent and unfortunate part of society, and until the mid-20th century was not seen as harmful. Luckily health and safety precautions have come to the public’s attention and now people are aware of the negative consequences that come from tobacco. While the risks are abundant, people still use tobacco, mainly by smoking, although rates have declined (Take Action). A social stigma has been built up around smoking that did not exist in the previous generations.

I was personally touched by tobacco usage when my grandma passed away from lung cancer in January of 2014. Even though she had quit smoking decades ago, the damage was already there. My whole family was shaken when we found out she was diagnosed, especially my dad. Thankfully my parents never picked up smoking, a habit I have followed, along with a growing number of people my age.

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The next step was to see if social media has played any role in this decline. Has social media increased health awareness along with social stigma associated with tobacco? Or has it actually been detrimental, causing young adults to use tobacco more? As social media becomes more and more prevalent in today’s world, the effects is has on the population, especially young adults, should be studied.

Introduction And Literature Review

With the advent of social media and the rise of the digital age in general, marketing campaigns have been modified and reassembled to fit the ever-changing landscape of advertising. From “Mad Men” style magazine and television ads to digital pop-ups on Facebook and Twitter, the world of marketing today looks wildly different from that of even ten years ago. To keep up with it all, advertising companies need to reinvent themselves in the tech savvy ways of the present while ditching old methods. This is mainly discussed in the context of typical marketing schemes, but it also applies to another area: tobacco prevention campaigns.

Tobacco-prevention campaigns are different from other marketing campaigns because they do not try and sell products. Instead they aim to promote a beneficial movement that reduces drug usage. This is called counter-marketing, a subset of advertising that includes weight-loss, condom usage, and childhood exercise.

One of the best examples of this is the truth campaign, which aims to stop people from smoking. Started in 1999, the truth campaign produces television commercials and online content to promote anti-tobacco messages. Truth has recently integrated social media to connect members of the smoking community who want support when trying to quit. It allows users to post photos, track their progress, and connect with other people. With this newest addition to the organization, truth hopes to “end smoking once and for all” (Take Action).

The premise behind the truth campaign is to end the reign of the big tobacco companies such as Marlboro and Camel. Aimed mostly at teenagers, truth now uses a variety of marketing campaigns to help them quit. This new method of prevention centers around voluntary personal interaction based on social media paired with television commercials. The campaign has been around since before social media was prevalent, making it a useful source to judge how counter-marketing has developed.

Researchers Sly, Heald and Ray (2001) looked to assess how effective the truth campaign was in the days before social media. They wanted to see “attitude and smoking related behavior change attributable to the campaign” (p.1). In 1997, five tobacco companies paid the state of Florida $11.3 billion for smoking-related illnesses. Florida then set up an extensive tobacco pilot program to see if high school teenagers reacted better to the truth campaign media commercials compared to the anti-tobacco campaigns of four other states. After a year of studies, the researchers concluded: “Florida youth had stronger anti-tobacco attitudes and better behavior patterns than the comparison population” (p.1) At the end of the survey, the overarching theme was that mass media campaigns, such as PSA’s and truth commercials on television, had a huge impact on youth.

This study, although outdated, had several important components to it. First of all, it incorporated a nationwide survey with a control group. The control group was only shown three public service announcements, while the Florida group was shown additional truth commercials. Secondly, by the end of the one-year experiment, the Florida group showed “stronger anti- tobacco attitudes and better behavior patterns than the comparison population” (Sly, Heald & Ray, 2001). According to the researchers, this correlation between higher media coverage and the effectiveness of anti-tobacco attitudes shows that method of prevention can work.

New campaigns have started using social media as the keystone concept in their organization. One program, led by Pamela Ling at University of California at San Francisco, was aimed at young hipsters. Funded by a $5 million grant from the National Institute of Health, it revolved around seemingly innovative measures such as smoke-free concerts and artist-inspired clothing. Using social media to coordinate events and track drug prevention progress was a big aspect of the program. This project is still ongoing, and studies are being conducted on the effects of the intervention of young adults in four cities compared to young adults in uninvolved cities.

Hicks, a writer for the Standard Examiner, agreed that “that hipsters need something more than scary health warnings to keep them from lighting up” (2015). He noted that they prefer social justice and individual expression as opposed to television commercials that impose anti-tobacco messages upon them. This coincides with the rise of social media and the allowance of personal interaction with other people it provides, and seems to be a change of approach to the way the truth campaigns of the late 1990’s went.

The 17-year gap in these campaigns indicates that marketing campaigns have to continuously update their marketing strategies to keep up with the quickly changing landscape of culture, especially concerning young adults and teenagers. One new strategy involved taking selfies and posting to social media. The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids created a Tobacco Free Day, a time when the campaign “encourages schools and youth groups to raise awareness through coordinated activities around the country” (“The Country School Joins anti-Tobacco Campaing”, 2015). The Country School in Maryland had upper school students take selfies and post to the Kick Butts Day website.

Evans, a researcher and psychologist, noted that this kind of “brand based on personal interaction” works better than just virtual interaction, mainly television and other advertisements (2008). In drug usage prevention, this means that involving social media in prevention campaigns is more effective than solely using television commercials, as the Sly, Heald, and Ray study did. Different prevention programs, like the one put on by the Country School, are necessary components, as “intentional marketing of tobacco products to young people” is a main cause of youth tobacco usage (The Star, 2015). The next step is to see how the addition of social media justice campaigns have impacted youth behavior and awareness compared to the counter-marketing campaigns of the past.


Interview Methods

A sample of interview questions are in the appendix. All names listed in this report are pseudonyms to protect confidentiality.

  • Jake- 19-year-old biology –psychology major. Jake is an occasional drug user who also admits to smoking tobacco but not frequently to represent the average Isla Vista resident.
  • Chris- 20-year-old economics/accounting major. Heavy tobacco user.
  • Julie- 20-year-old Greek Liaison at Life of the Party, an on-campus organization that promotes healthy drug, alcohol, and tobacco usage.

Interview Results

Tobacco Usage

On the topic of tobacco usage, both Chris and Jake admitted to using it, at least on a semi-regular basis. Chris started off because “it was cool and everyone was doing it”, while Jake was swept up in the Isla Vista culture as a recreational drug user. Speaking strictly about tobacco, Chris is a heavy user with a self-proclaimed addiction. Having chewed tobacco for over four and a half years, he is having a tough time trying to curb his usage, while Jake seems to have no issue about much he uses tobacco. Jake admitted to only using tobacco when he smokes marijuana, which he said is a common combination.

Notice of Campaigns

Both users are aware of the many campaigns concerning anti-tobacco usage, both on television and social media sites. Jake mentioned an old commercial that has made a revival on Facebook, and makes him “second guess every time I use drugs”. He said commercials are not enough to make him quit however, as he feels like he has his usage under control.

At the other end of the spectrum, Chris also is knowledgeable of the anti-tobacco campaigns. On social media websites, he constantly sees them. However, he is so heavily addicted that he chooses to ignore them. This coincides with his belief that he is invincible and that cancer “can happen, but isn’t going to happen to him”.

As a 20-year –old college student, he “doesn’t want to be reminded of his mortality” and when he does see an anti-tobacco advertisement on social media, he quickly skips by it. Social media has only worsened his dependence, as he constantly sees his friends posting pictures of them smoking or using drugs. He acknowledges that without social media, he would not be so heavily reminded of drug usage.

These two students both acknowledge their problems, but have two different rationalizations for ignoring them. Drug and alcohol prevention campaigns have little impact on them, as neither wants to drastically change the way they live their life.

Drug Prevention

Although Julie is the Greek Liaison for Life of the Party’s alcohol-usage program, she still is partially responsible for overall drug prevention on campus. Life of the Party is an organization that does not try to completely stop students using drugs but instead aims to give them tips on being safer. Julie stated that Life of the Party wants students to “acknowledge, not abstain” from alcohol and other drugs, and the organization provides students with information so they can make their own informed decisions.

According to Julie, most students know and can control their drug usage, and with a bit of outreach from Life of the Party, can avoid serious consequences such as school suspension or jail. She mentioned that since LOTP began on campus four years ago, the number of arrests and medical reports have decreased. After over 200 hospital visits at last year’s Deltopia, this year only had 50. Julie credits some of this to the organization’s work.

The program uses a variety of social media methods to increase awareness in the Isla Vista community. It has a website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram so the group can post information to its followers. Hashtags allow them to connect their Twitter and Instagram accounts to other groups on campus. They also require students to “like” or “follow” the organization if the students want to receive some of the free items the program hands out. This method allows the group to attract students who will later be able to be up to date with what the group is doing, such as tabling events, driving under influence checkpoint reminders, and drug facts.

Julie attributes much of the group’s success to their multiple social media outlets, as now “people will recognize the group” when they see them on campus. Social media allows the group to attract students who may not have been interested originally but joined because of the giveaways. As the group does not aim to stop students from drinking or doing drugs completely, little tips posted to students’ Facebook pages or Twitter feeds reminds them of the dangers of drug usage. Julie said she believes that Life of the Party is an “organization that wants to be in contact with students” and social media easily allows this to happen.

Survey Methods

18 students were asked to complete an online anonymous survey about tobacco usage on and off campus. It combines personal statements on their own tobacco usage with opinion questions about how tobacco usage has been affected through different methods of prevention.

Survey Results

Sixteen out of seventeen respondents stated that they witnessed tobacco usage off-campus on a weekly basis, with twelve saying they saw it more than five times a week. Only four out of eighteen of them admitted to using tobacco products weekly. Out of the people who use tobacco products, one person believed they have a problem, and two have tried quitting before. When asked about the methods of anti-tobacco campaigns they have witnessed on a scale ranging from Not Aware, Slightly Aware, Moderately Aware, and Very Aware, ten respondents said they were Very Aware of television commercials while only four were Very Aware of social media advertisements. Two were not even aware that anti-tobacco campaigns are run on social media websites.

Thirteen out of eighteen respondents believed that tobacco usage has decreased over the past 10 years, and no one believes it has increased. When asked what the main reason was for this, eight attested it to increased safety and health awareness, seven to social stigma related to using tobacco, and three to anti-tobacco campaigns. Eleven believed that anti-tobacco advertising is moderately effective, while only two believed it is highly effective. The final two questions asked the respondents about their knowledge of UCSB’s on-campus “Call it Quits” program and the national truth program, both of which aim to reduce tobacco usage. Out of the fourteen survey takers who go to UCSB, no one was aware of the “Call it Quits” program. Only three were aware of the truth campaign.


In this study the theory of personal interaction clashed with practical application. Douglas Evans stated that a brand of personal interaction is possible, with social media websites acting as advocates of a change in lifestyle behaviors, as opposed to television and print media advertisements. My interviewee Chris is an example of how social media did not help his addiction, but instead exacerbated it. In his situation, becoming more aware of tobacco usage through Facebook overturned any drug prevention the website provided.

Social media does not create an individual or their behaviors, but has a definite influence on both. Once addicted, social media could not have any positive effect on Chris’ usage. This was due to him constantly seeing his friends using tobacco while skipping the anti-tobacco campaigns out of denial.

This differs with how people believe that social media can be used to positively influence tobacco usage. Julie, a member of Life of the Party, uses social media to raise awareness of her organization and hopes that having multiple social media platforms will only increase their outreach. This may have a crowding out effect, in which people who may need help get turned off by the ever-increasing amount of exposure to anti-tobacco messages. Some of them may want to find help themselves instead of being told they have a problem.

This certainly coincides with what Jake believes. A moderate user, he does not believe his tobacco usage is of any concern, and being exposed to messages telling him about quitting tobacco may only push him towards using the drug. Another alternative for Jake is that he has formed a baseline for what a heavy user will look like. With the multitude of commercials that Jake has been exposed to, he believes that on the scale of drug usage, he is a low user. By being aware of the different commercials that show some of the worst-case scenarios of using tobacco, he is still safe. Unfortunately, Jake and Chris both deny that tobacco poses any danger to themselves specifically.

The survey results showed that while many believed social media is effective at promoting social change and tobacco prevention, it is still not as effective as television commercials. Public service announcements put out by campaigns such as the truth campaign trump the effectiveness of social media campaigns. This goes against what Evans stated, and what my survey acknowledges. Until more research is completed, such as the Pamela Ling study, social media is an inferior method of tobacco prevention.

There are several reasons why television is more effective. It may be due to the fact that television commercials have been around for a much longer time and have left an imprint in many college students’ minds. It also could be due to the very nature of social media, where the media source conforms itself it the user’s personality and actions. Someone who has shown very little interest in tobacco or trying to quit would not see as many anti-tobacco campaigns as someone who constantly looks up keywords such as “tobacco” or “addiction”.

This can be applied to other issues, such as exercise, environmental issues, and civil rights. If a person tries to find out more about an issue, the chance that they see something about show up on their news feed would increase. In essence, it pushes people to a side of a spectrum, where on one side are involved, dedicated users who interact heavily with their respective issue, and on the other are social media “hermits”, who are not targeted by advertising companies due to their digital isolation.

Television works better than social media when trying to reach the general public. As no one has any effect on which commercials they are shown, everyone who is watching a particular channel is subject to the same advertisements. With someone like Chris is in denial of their addiction, television commercials are more effective than social media ones. As for now, social media is only effective if someone is attempting to quit, and has a negative effect on someone who is addicted and does not want to quit.

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