Sure, Smoking Causes Cancer, But it Won't Happen to Me

Study of teen risk perception of smoking

The University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication conducted a national telephone survey that assessed how well adolescents understand the risks of smoking. Working under the direction of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC), Princeton Survey Research Associates surveyed 300 smokers and 300 nonsmokers aged 14 to 22.

Key Findings: The survey found that:

  • Although young people do tend to overstate one of the best-known smoking-related risks—that of contracting lung cancer—they either underestimate or do not know of the danger of several other serious risks. These include:
    • The chance of dying from lung cancer after contracting the disease.
    • The overall risk of dying from smoking-related illnesses.
    • The average years of life lost to smoking-related illnesses.
    • Their own personal risk—as opposed to the risk to smokers in general.
    • The dangers of smoking in comparison to other kinds of high-risk behavior, such as the use of illegal drugs.
  • They are also overly optimistic about their ability to quit smoking when they wish. Smokers who saw smoking as very risky were more than four times more likely to want to quit than others—suggesting that smoking-cessation campaigns should emphasize the risks of smoking.
  • Concern about second-hand smoke appears to motivate quitting and suggests that campaigns should also include education about the dangers of secondhand smoke and the rights of nonsmokers.

Dissemination: Researchers presented their preliminary findings at a July 1999 seminar at the Annenberg School and have written two articles and three chapters for a book on smoking risk.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted a second survey that extended the findings to adults. The results of both surveys are contained in five chapters in a book edited by Paul Slovic, Smoking: Risk, Perception, and Policy (Sage Press, 2001).

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