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Was Television Responsible for a New Generation of Smokers?

Michael Thomas

Journal of Consumer Research, 2019, vol. 46, issue 4, 689-707

Abstract: Consumers’ response to mass media can be difficult to assess because individuals choose for themselves the amount of media they consume, and that choice may be correlated with their other consumption decisions. To avoid this selection problem, this article examines the introduction of television to the US, during which some cities gained access to television years before others. This natural experiment makes it possible to estimate the causal impact of television on the decision to start smoking, a consumer behavior with important public health implications. Difference-in-differences analyses of television’s introduction indicate that (1) television did cause people to start smoking, (2) 16- to 21-year-olds were particularly affected by television, and (3) much of the response to television occurred within a couple of years of its introduction. Our preferred estimates suggest that television increased the share of smokers in the population by 5–15 percentage points, generating roughly 11 million additional smokers between 1946 and 1970. More broadly, these results offer causal evidence that (1) mass media can have a large influence on consumers, potentially affecting their health, (2) media exerts an especially strong influence on teens, and (3) mass media can influence consumers more than typical changes in prices.

Keywords: smoking initiation; television; health; natural experiment; advertising; mass media (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2019
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