Up in Smoke


California's antismoking campaign isn't exactly subtle. One commercial shows a pregnant woman serving dinner to her husband, who is smoking a cigarette. She begins to cough, exhaling plumes of secondary smoke, and he continues puffing away, oblivious. As the coughs become louder, the camera focuses on her swollen belly.

It's tough, but it works. Or so the state Department of Health Services would have us believe. California's "innovative," $28.6-million mass-media campaign, the most conspicuous result of a cigarette-tax initiative passed in 1988, has gained a reputation for effectiveness that has little basis in reality.

That reputation is encouraging imitators in other states. In May, two Wisconsin legislators announced plans to introduce a bill that would raise their state's cigarette tax by 10 cents a pack and allocate the additional revenue to an antismoking campaign. "A similar plan of education and advertising has already been tried in California," said Senate President Fred Risser, "and Californians quit at about twice the rate as before the campaign. That means there are now about 750,000 fewer smokers in California than before the antismoking media campaign."

But the impression that California's ad campaign has reduced smoking is based on data that show nothing of the kind. The Department of Heath Services reports that the percentage of adult Californians who smoke has declined from 26.3 in 1987 to 21.2 in 1990. These figures come from two sources: the 1987 National Health Interview Survey, which included a California sample, and a 1990 survey commissioned by the state. The decline in the number of smokers is 13 percent bigger than would have been expected based on the downward trend prior to 1988.

State officials suggest that the difference is due to the antismoking campaign: "Research Data Shows Significant Drop in Tobacco Usage Since Enactment of California's Tobacco Education Campaign," a health department press release announced last year.

But figures on cigarette sales from the state's tax collectors tell a different story. Between April 1990, when the ad campaign began, and the end of the year, the number of cigarette packs bought by Californians was only about 1 percent lower than during the same period in 1989.

The sales data do show a significant drop in purchases, of about 14 percent, between 1988 and 1989. (By contrast, purchases declined by about 1 percent between 1987 and 1988.) What happened in 1989? That was the year the cigarette tax went from 10 cents a pack to 35 cents, raising the price of each pack by about 12 percent.

Michael Johnson, chief of the evaluation unit in the health department's Tobacco Control Section, agrees that "it's primarily the tax that would account for the drop." It looks like California has rediscovered the demand curve.