Effects of health publicity on prevalence of smoking

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.309.6966.1441b (Published 26 November 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:1441
  1. Donald Reid
  1. Director, Association for Public Health, London WC1H 9TX.

    EDITOR,—Joy Townsend and colleagues' study of the effects of price and health publicity on cigarette smoking used a broad definition of publicity, which may lead to misunderstandings.1 The definition was, in effect, a measure of “everything else except price”—which, as the authors acknowledge, comprises a much wider range of influences than publicity alone.

    The authors found that health publicity, as they defined it, had had relatively less influence on the smoking habits of more disadvantaged socioeconomic groups, so adding to inequality. The effect of mass communications—that is, health publicity as it is usually defined—seems, however, to depend on the medium used. For example, studies of rates of stopping smoking between 1950 and 1980 in the United States suggest that health scares in the 1950s, which were largely carried by the print media, had relatively little influence on the prevalence of smoking in more deprived groups relative to the population as a whole. These groups were much more responsive, however, to later publicity in the electronic media—especially the “fairness doctrine” antismoking campaign on television between 1967 and 1970.2 Smokers in all social classes responded equally to Sydney's “quit for life” campaign on television in 1983.3

    Television, which is generally watched more by members of social classes C, D, and E, is therefore a potentially class free medium for health promotion in comparison with the print media, though these probably have a correspondingly greater influence on decision makers.