Study supports reining in smoking ads

March 14, 2007

Everyone knows that the sooner a smoker quits, the better.


Now, research co-authored by marketing Professor Rajiv K. Sinha of the W. P. Carey School of Business shows that the later in life people start smoking, the more likely they are to quit. And, the longer people wait to light up, the more likely it is that they never will smoke at all. But those who take that first puff early in life are most likely to be doomed to a lifelong addiction.

"Our results provide preliminary evidence that both marketing efforts by tobacco firms and public policy initiatives can have a significant influence on smoking behavior," states the study that is forthcoming in Marketing Science and titled, "Smoking Cessation: A Model of Planned versus Actual Behavior for Time-inconsistent Consumers."

"In particular, we find that minor reductions in the age at which individuals start smoking may not only vastly extend their duration of smoking but also convert potential 'never smokers' into lifetime smokers," the study concludes.


The study lends support to recent legislative efforts to control tobacco and smoking. California, which has been at the forefront of efforts to curb youth smoking, recently enacted numerous anti-smoking measures. Other moves attempted to increase the legal smoking age from 18 to 21 in that state. Legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress in February would give the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco and its ingredients, including nicotine. Congress is also currently considering further limiting cigarette advertising.



The very thin line…

Sinha and his co-author, Fernando S. Machado of the Catholic University of Portugal, put together a dynamic optimization model which they validated with survival analysis using survey data from more than 800 smokers. They found that there is a very thin line between those who start to smoke and those who never do, Sinha said in an interview.


The authors' results suggest that smokers' participation and cessation decisions are governed by three interplaying effects:

  • The cessation effect leads smokers to advance their plans to quit smoking
  • The procrastination effect leads them to consecutively revise their planned quitting age upwards.
  • The threshold effect causes an "all or nothing" type of extreme smoking behavior based on their individual preferences for instant gratification.

The duration of smoking is effectively governed by which of the first two effects is dominant.

"The central result is that smokers with a strong proclivity for instant gratification are more likely to deceive themselves into believing that they can quit early," Sinha says. "They underestimate the magnitude of pleasure they derive from smoking -- the 'hit' -- and overestimate the health costs from smoking. So they think they will quit soon, and easily. However, then they run into the procrastination effect. They keep pushing down the planned quitting date as they get closer to it."

The authors cite previous research from economists Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy which recognizes that addiction, although an irrational and myopic behavior, leads rational individuals with perfect foresight to choose addiction because the gratification from smoking exceeds the costs of doing so.


Putting off what should be done today

Sinha and Machado investigate the relationship between smokers' planned and actual behavior over the entire cycle of their smoking careers.

They say smokers engage in "time-inconsistent behavior" -- that is, present preferences are actually at odds with what they might prefer later. Their plans to quit tend to go by the wayside, and their actual quitting dates may come many, many years later than they had originally planned.


"Actually, they understand that they might not be able to quit, and so use self-control devices to mitigate the impact," Sinha explains. For example, many smokers forego cartons for the more expensive single pack. "By buying fewer cigarettes they commit themselves to smoking less, a plan that they would not be able to carry out without such pre-commitment. This inability to meet goals is the hallmark of time-inconsistent behavior."


In other words, they put off for later what they ought to do today.


Tobacco marketing and public policy


"Our analysis also highlights the extreme power that marketing efforts by tobacco manufacturers may have on smoking behavior, not just by affecting the length of smoking but also by potentially converting some non-smokers into lifetime smokers," the study states.


Continuing: "Furthermore, we show that the development of more effective smoking-cessation aids may induce lifetime smoking behavior among certain segments. Finally, our theoretical results have some interesting public policy implications, as we demonstrate that even a small increase in the legal smoking age may not just reduce the length of smoking but also decrease the initiation of smoking."

The authors note California's efforts to curb youth smoking and the state's legislative attempts to increase the legal smoking age from 18 to 21.

"Increasing the legal age beyond 18 years will have the immediate effect of making it harder to market tobacco to high school students and teenagers, thereby potentially saving many of them from a lifetime of addiction," the authors state.

Ironically, smoking aids are a double-edged sword, Sinha says.


"By reducing the withdrawal costs, these products help smokers to quit earlier," he says. "However, if such products also change the perceptions of potential smokers regarding the difficulty of quitting -- and reinforce their naiveté regarding the ease of quitting -- then they may cause some time-inconsistent individuals to initiate smoking and continue doing so for many years."


Targeting the young

"Our findings support the congressional move to further limit cigarette advertising, as they provide evidence that targeting youth has the potential of converting 'never smokers' to 'forever smokers'," Sinha reiterates.

Sinha notes that cigarette smoking primarily begins in early adolescence and one-third of all smokers had their first cigarette by the age of 14. Ninety percent of all smokers begin before the age of 21, according to the American Lung Association.

Cigarettes cause more than 400,000 preventable deaths a year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The death toll exceeds those caused by AIDS, guns, vehicle crashes and all other drugs put together.

According to Sinha, every smoker is different in the way he or she experiences a smoking "hit," the level of withdrawal symptoms and the perceived health costs.

For example, the empirical results indicate that about 80 percent of those who start smoking at the age of 18 think that they will quit within a ten year period. However, the majority of those individuals will not be able to do so and many of them will smoke throughout most of their lives.

"Some of these blokes may be off by almost 40 years," Sinha says. "They manage to fool themselves rather gravely, no pun intended!"

The study identifies 'hyperbolic' smokers as consumers for whom a sacrifice appears less appealing as the moment of sacrifice approaches.


"Ergo, for hyperbolic smokers who are trying to give up smoking, there is a conflict between preferences for today and those for tomorrow," Sinha says. "Today's 'self' is impatient, and given a choice between the current pleasures of smoking and the long-term health damages of doing so, they greatly discount the latter and decide to smoke. But tomorrow's 'self' is much more patient and would prefer to quit smoking. The problem is that tomorrow never comes and smoking continues, much to the regret of the smoker."


How realistic is it to expect the smoking age to be raised to 21?

"I don't know, but I have to assume that if legislators are more aware of the beneficial impact of very minor increases in the smoking age they might take a more forceful stand against the tobacco lobbies," Sinha says.

The "extreme power" of cigarette marketing


The study cites the "extreme power" of cigarette marketing, so should all cigarette ads go the way of TV ads and be banned?


"This would be unrealistic, though desirable from my point of view, but at the very least we should get rid of ads in all media vehicles that target teens," Sinha says.

Sinha used to smoke and shares his personal experience as follows: "I smoked for four years, starting at the age of 19 and giving up at 23 in February 1982. This is fairly atypical behavior. Incidentally, I quit on the very first attempt, so my model does not apply to me at all!"


Bottom line:


  • That first cigarette is a health and financial step into quicksand (a pack-a-day habit, even at a low price of $3 a pack, costs $1,095 annually and $43,800 over a 40-year smoking career).
  • The sooner someone smokes, the longer it takes to quit and the more likely it is that they will smoke their entire, cigarette-shortened life.
  • Smokers who want to quit fool themselves about how long it will take: Almost always, their actual quitting date comes years after they had planned.
  • Ads that appeal to teens by minimizing the health risks and underestimating the difficulty of quitting are not in the public interest.
  • Raising the legal age of buying cigarettes from 18 would shorten smoking careers, prevent some from smoking altogether and possibly prevent many premature deaths.