Anti-Smoking Ads Might Be Doing the Exact Opposite of What They're Supposed To Do

They might actually make smokers less likely to quit.

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The people behind quit-smoking ads probably have good intentions, but their campaigns may actually be backfiring, according to November 2015 research published in Social Science & Medicine.

In fact, stop-smoking messages appear to make it more difficult for some smokers to quit tobacco. The reason? The wording and negative stereotypes can leave smokers feeling angry or defensive, which affects their self-esteem. 

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It's known as self-stigma: Smokers used words such as "leper," "outcast," "bad person," "low-life," and "pathetic" to describe themselves in many of the almost 600 articles that were reviewed by researchers. Smokers had several different reactions to the stigma, including relapsing, being more resistant to quitting, choosing to be isolated and having higher stress levels. 

It's Time to Stop The Blame Game

It's understandable why the typical "just quit" campaigns aren't highly effective, says Marvin D. Seppala, MD, a national expert on addiction treatment and the chief medical officer at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

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"They all know the information — the warnings are on the packages, they know all of the dangers, they hear about it everywhere — but they're unable to stop," he says. "So the last thing we should do is keep hitting them with more of the same things."

Dr. Seppala adds smoking is much more than simply a nasty habit, and no one wants to feel as if they're being scolded.

"I think sometimes people don't know that smoking is an addiction or understand what an addiction really is," he says. "It is a brain disease with powerful subconscious forces working to keep us smoking rather than working to help us stop. Consciously, you want to stop but the underlying drive may be to keep smoking — and our own brain can fool us into continuing, even when we don't want to."

Seppala believes change comes with a more supportive campaign approach. "I would like to have a positive message about the possibilities of quitting and the benefits," he says. "Quitting is possible — just let people know that."

If At First You Don't Succeed…

Many studies have shown that quitting smoking often takes people several attempts before it sticks. "So stopping and starting does not mean failure — it's the norm and just part of the process," Seppala says. "If you're smoking again, don't assume you're stuck there. It's like the old Mark Twain joke: 'Quitting smoking is easy, I've done it hundreds of times.'"

And even if someone thinks they've tried every treatment — from the gum to the patch to tapering off to quitting cold turkey — there may be other strategies to consider.

"I think most states have quit lines that can be accessed easily, and some insurance companies have programs for smokers, as well" he says. [1-800-QUIT-NOW is a free service to help people quit smoking and other forms of tobacco and can connect you to smoking cessation services in your area.]

"I tell people to just keep trying whatever means are possible," Seppala says. "Keep doing something and pursue that possibility. The research on quitting shows that more people quit on their own than with help — which means all of these attempts to quit are really worthwhile." 

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