Point-of-sale advertising major cause of teen smoking, study shows

Point-of-sale tobacco advertising works impressively well on teens - so well that federal regulators should consider barring such marketing efforts from convenience stores, gas stations and small groceries, a Stanford University School of Medicine researcher said.

A study published in the august issue of Pediatrics led by Lisa Henriksen, PhD, senior research scientist at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, reports that teens' exposure to cigarette advertising at retail outlets substantially increases the odds they will start smoking. According to the findings, students who visited these stores on a regular basis were at least twice as likely to try smoking as those who visited infrequently.

''The tobacco industry argues the purpose of advertising is to encourage smokers to switch brands, but this shows that advertising encourages teenagers to pick up a deadly habit,'' said Henriksen, who has studied tobacco marketing for more than a decade.

The study's publication comes just as the new federal tobacco regulation law goes into effect, empowering the U.S. food and drug administration to regulate the manufacturing, marketing and sale of tobacco products. As of 22 June, tobacco companies are banned from using terms such as ''light,'' ''low'' and ''mild'' on advertising and packaging and sponsoring cultural and sporting events, but regulators may impose additional constraints if warranted.

Point-of-sale is the major form of marketing used for tobacco, representing 90 per cent of the industry's $12.5 billion marketing budget in 2006, and the study suggests that further limits on such activity could affect long-term smoking habits. The teen years are when the vast majority of smokers start, and if teens make it through to adulthood without smoking, their likelihood of ever becoming addicted is very small, Henriksen said.

In recent years, the decline in teenage smoking has leveled off. According to the centers for disease control and prevention, high school students who reported current cigarette use declined sharply from a peak of 36.4 per cent in 1997, to 21.9 per cent in 2003, after which the percentage dropped just a little to 19.5 in 2009. ''The huge decreases are really starting to slow,'' said Henriksen. ''The train won't continue downhill without further action. Regulating retail marketing would be ideal for smoking prevention.''