ETHS reduces smoking with ‘social norms’ ad campaign

Scott Gordon

While restrictions on smoking have gradually tightened in Evanston this year, Evanston Township High School officials have reduced smoking and drinking among students since 2001, according to the University of Illinois’ Center for Prevention Research and Development (CPRD).

ETHS is now one of the first high schools in the nation to accomplish this with the help of an advertising campaign focused on student perceptions and social norms.

The campaign, called Strength in Numbers and coordinated by ETHS’s Peer Services Department, the CPRD, and The National Social Norms Resource Center, began in May 2001.

A 2001 survey of 2,010 ETHS students showed that 83 percent of the students did not smoke cigarettes and 53 percent of them did not drink. But the students surveyed overestimated the popularity of drinking and smoking among their fellow students — on average, they thought only 15 percent of students did not smoke and that only 8 percent did not drink.

Accordingly, the resource center created ads with the goal of discouraging smoking by informing ETHS students that most of their peers didn’t smoke.

Posters displayed at the school following the 2001 survey carried messages like “Most (8 of 10) Wildkits choose not to smoke cigarettes” and, as surveys in 2002 and 2003 showed decreasing drinking and smoking among students, messages changed to fit the new numbers: “7 out of 10 ETHS students drink non-alcoholic drinks when they hang out with friends” and “I DON’T SMOKE — Just like 88% of ETHS students.”

On the posters, the messages are accompanied with photos of smiling teenagers and fine-print facts about the surveys.

The campaign also was funded by money from the Illinois Tobacco Settlement, Chicago Community Trust, and Rotary Club of Evanston Lighthouse.

Sara Christensen, community program development coordinator for Peer Services, said “there hasn’t been a lot of research about showing any strategies that have particularly shown any success” previous to the social norms campaign.

“This strategy has a lot of theory and research behind it,” unlike previous anti-smoking advertising efforts at ETHS, Christensen added.

By 2003, ETHS student smoking had decreased to 12 percent and alcohol use to 41 percent. Christensen said she considers this decrease proof that the program works, and that ETHS most likely will continue using the program indefinitely.