Hitting them with health warnings has proved ineffective and most teenagers have "crazy" ideas of the risks they take, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund said yesterday.
In a MORI poll of 4,500 schoolchildren aged between 11 and 16 around two-thirds of teenage smokers think the health risks from smoking are not very important despite the fact that one in two teenagers who continue to smoke will die as a result of their habit.
Asked about health risks, teenage smokers saw air pollution or pesticides in foods as being as dangerous as smoking regularly. Three-quarters ofnon-smokers, however, saw smoking as a real risk.
A third of teenage smokers also agreed with a statement that smoking cannot be all that dangerous or the Government would ban sports sponsorship by tobacco companies.
"The truth is unless [teenagers] quit smoking about half are going to kill themselves," said Professor Richard Peto, head of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) Cancer Studies Unit at Oxford.
The strongest influence on quitting was if their girlfriends or boyfriends wanted them to give up. The MORI survey found that 4 out of 10 smokers would try to give up if their partner wanted them to and nearly one in five would give up if their best friends quit.
Only 4 per cent said they would stop if a celebrity they admired told them to.
The smoking-related deaths of screen idols such as Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Steve McQueen have a lasting effect on smokers' willpower. Professor Gordon McVie, director-general of the Cancer Research Campaign, said that the findings contradicted widely held preconceptions. "A lot of adults believe that young smokers would listen to celebrities' advice on quitting. But this survey shows that it's boy and girlfriends who carry the most influence . . . love really is the key to getting youngsters to quit," he said.
The other big influence for teenagers who have less disposable income than adults is price. More than half the teenagers surveyed said that a substantial increase in the price of cigarettes would discourage them from starting smoking. And 55 per cent of people who smoke todaythought that increasing the price of cigarettes to pounds 5 for 20 would deter young people from taking up the habit.
The ICRF estimates that smoking will kill around 1 million of today's teenagers and children in middle age if present smoking trends continue. A further million will die through tobacco in old age.
The charities called for the Government to reconsider banning tobacco advertising because while teenagers claim not to be influenced by it, - only 22 per cent of smokers thought a ban on tobacco advertising would discourage them from smoking. The survey revealed that Benson & Hedges, the most heavily advertised UK brand, is by far the preferred choice of young smokers. A regional analysis of brands smoked shows that youngsters tend to buy the brands that are advertised locally. Benson & Hedges, which is advertised in the south, was chosen by 59 per cent of teenagers.
Pamela Furness, the chief executive of ASH, the anti-smoking lobby, said: "If the rise in teenage smoking is to be reversed it is essential that the Government complements its policy on tax with a comprehensive tobacco advertising ban." British tobacco death rates have fallen by about a fifth since the 1970s. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Britain had the worst tobacco death rates in the world. But between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s there was a decrease of about 30 per cent in British cigarette sales.
"Unfortunately the decrease in cigarette sales has pretty well ground to a halt and the proportion of teenagers who smoke is about the same now as it was 10 years ago," Professor Peto said.
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