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Advertising and Store Location Influences Teen Cannabis Use, Study Finds

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Oct 16, 2020   
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In a new study, published in the Journal of Health Communication, the researchers detail the results of a survey of Washington State teenagers aged 13-to-17 years old. They found that regular exposure to advertising, and to a lesser extent the proximity to cannabis stores, increased the likelihood of future consumption.

The results could have significant policy implications for states looking to balance a healthy legal cannabis market with ongoing efforts to prevent teen drug use.

Regular exposure to adverts increases the likelihood of use

As Washington was one of the first US states to legalize the recreational use and sale of cannabis, the researchers note that many of the area’s teens will have grown up with legal cannabis retailers in or near their communities. This context, the researchers say, makes the state an ideal ground for investigating youth attitudes toward cannabis. In total, 350 teens were recruited to complete this new survey, with the consent of their parents.

In order to establish the teens’ beliefs about cannabis use, they were asked to rate the likelihood of various positive or negative outcomes following cannabis use (I will “Have a good time”, or it will “Damage my brain,” for example) on a scale of 1-to-5, indicating how strongly they believed these things might happen. They were also asked to measure how strongly their friends and family might approve or disapprove if they were to start consuming cannabis regularly, and to estimate their confidence to say no to cannabis if it were to be offered to them in different situations.

To work out how the adolescents’ environments might be contributing to these views, each participant was also asked to provide their zip code, estimate the distance to their nearest recreational cannabis store, and to roughly evaluate how frequently they see advertisements for cannabis in their daily life.

The participants were also directly asked “How likely is it that you will use marijuana, at least once or twice, in the future?” as a way to assess their possibility of future use.

From these responses, the researchers determined that regular exposure to cannabis advertisements on storefronts, billboards, and in online spaces significantly increased the likelihood that adolescents would use cannabis in the future.

“While there are restrictions against using advertising designed specifically to target youth, it does still appear to be having some influence,” study author Jessica Fitts Willoughby, an associate professor at Washington State University, told the WSU Insider. “Our research suggests a need to equip adolescents with the knowledge and skills to critically evaluate marijuana advertisements.”

Proximity to retail stores plays a smaller role

Perceived proximity to cannabis retailers was also shown to be an important metric, though the results of the survey on this topic were more mixed.

“The study participants who felt positively about marijuana and perceived living close to retailers were the most likely to report intentions to use marijuana,” said Stacey J.T. Hust, associate dean in the Murrow College of Communication and fellow study author. “This was especially the case when they also reported having positive beliefs about marijuana use.”

Proximity as a sole variable was positively associated with cannabis use at the point of entry to the researchers’ statistical model, but after controlling for all other variables it fell beneath the threshold of significance. But taken in conjunction with exposure to advertisements, it revealed another interesting conclusion.

Adolescents who felt that they lived far away from any retailers and who also reported seeing relatively few advertisements were less likely to indicate possible future cannabis use. However, those living farther away but who were exposed to a greater amount of advertising materials were still more likely to report an intent to use cannabis.

“[This] suggests that while living far away from a marijuana retailer may serve as a protective factor, this protection is mitigated when the individual is exposed to marijuana advertising,” the study authors wrote in their paper.

Teen cannabis use and future considerations for policymakers

In Washington State, cannabis retailers are allowed to advertise in newspapers that are delivered to residences, and also online. This means that even the youth who are living furthest away from retailers can still be easily impacted by the messaging contained in advertisements.

And while most states with legal cannabis provisions restrict the placement of advertisements or retail stores near schools, placement near other locations where adolescents may spend their time remains largely unregulated.

“Our findings are particularly relevant given that most states that have legalized recreational marijuana have not restricted their proximity to neighborhoods or living areas, which may be particularly challenging in large metropolitan areas,” Hust said. “States may want to consider using census data to identify the proportion of teens living in particular areas as they identify the location for marijuana retailers.”

The Washington State University researchers are now looking to further their understanding of the relationship between cannabis use and advertising using a new experiment, where they are testing how young people interpret and respond to different types of advertisements.

“One of the things this research and other studies suggest is that these advertisements are pretty prolific in certain areas and we want to see what type of appeals are used in the advertisements and how those appeals affect viewers,” Hust added. “Our long-term goal is really to develop a better understanding of how adolescents can make healthy and informed decisions in an environment in which marijuana is legal.”


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