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Causal effects of point-of-sale cigarette promotions and subjective social status on cigarette craving: a randomised within-person experiment


Background Cigarette smoking continues to be a leading cause of preventable deaths in the USA, in part because the USA has not adopted the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. One way the tobacco industry counteracts tobacco control policies is by heavily advertising cigarettes at the point of sale in retailers (eg, at the cash register) and by offering discounts on cigarettes.

Design A within-subject experimental design with adults who smoke cigarettes daily (n=281) investigated whether: (1) exposure to images of cigarette promotions in an online experiment is associated with greater cigarette craving relative to viewing images of non-smoking cues, and (2) if exposure to images of point-of-sale cigarette promotions with a discount (vs without) increases cigarette craving. The study also examined how participants’ subjective social status (compared with others in the USA) relates to cigarette craving after exposure to images of cigarette promotions with and without a discount.

Results In an online experiment, exposure to images of smoking cues, including point-of-sale cigarette promotions, elicited greater craving relative to non-smoking cues (all p<0.001). In addition, images of promotions with a discount elicited higher levels of craving compared with those without a discount (b=0.09, p=0.001). Although participants with a higher (vs lower) subjective social status craved cigarettes less overall (b=−0.12, p=0.012), there was no difference in their craving between images of promotions with and without a discount, while craving was higher for images of promotions with a discount than without for participants with higher subjective social status (b=0.06, p=0.021).

Conclusion Viewing images of point-of-sale cigarette promotions can causally increase cravings to smoke, which may also apply to real-world retail settings that display cigarette promotions. Restricting point-of-sale promotions generally, and discounts specifically, could help reduce cigarette smoking and address tobacco use disparities in the USA.

  • advertising and promotion
  • socioeconomic status
  • tobacco industry
  • disparities

Data availability statement

Data are available upon reasonable request. All datasets and analysis code are available upon reasonable request.

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