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Virginia Commonwealth University

Project Description

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) is an urban, public institution with an enrollment of approximately 24,000 undergraduate, graduate and first professional students. In 1998 its Office of Health Promotion began a social norms marketing campaign to decrease tobacco use. Five areas of interest were focused on:

  1. Perceptions of smoking norms
  2. Attitudes toward smoking
  3. Intention to use tobacco
  4. Tobacco use behavior
  5. Quit intentions and attempts

Project Funding Source

Virginia Department of Health

Project Objective

To reduce tobacco use and build understanding that most students do not smoke. The goals of normalizing non-smoking are to:

  1. Prevent students from starting
  2. Build support for clean indoor air policies
  3. Increase cessation among current users

Baseline Data

See Project Results.

Primary Normative Messages

There are several different campaigns that all employ the same normative message: "7 out of 10 college students don't smoke."

Marketing Methods Employed

Posters in residence halls, posters in classrooms, campus newspaper ads, table tents, and promotional items (e.g. key chains). There was also a nominal cash incentive for students who knew the content of the normative message when asked by the campaign spokesperson: Darth Vapor.


A quasi-experimental pretest/posttest design was used. VCU served as the intervention site and a large urban university in the same state served as the control. Resident hall assistants at both sites were trained to administer a 33-item survey during their first hall meetings. The survey was optional and anonymous, but one item at the end of the survey did request the last four digits of the social security number (SSN). The grouped data, pretest and posttest from both VCU and the control site, yielded a total n=2,367.

Data was analyzed at two levels. Group analysis was undertaken using all 2,367 surveys and comparing groups at baseline and follow-up. In addition, for those surveys that could be matched using last 4 digits of the SSN and demographics, analysis was undertaken looking for change in individual students over time at each site.

Project Results

Group data: Intervention site showed

  • Significant change in perception. Intervention site had more accurate perception of use.
  • Significant change in mindset of smokers
  • No significant change in tobacco use behavior or quit intentions at group level analysis

Matched (SSN) data: Intervention site showed

  • Significant reduction in the number of cigarettes smoked on campus
  • Significant change in perceptions. Intervention site had more accurate perception of use.
  • Significant change in attitude of smokers
  • Significant change in mindset of non-smokers
  • No significant differences in quit intentions or attempts

Principal Investigator

Linda Hancock, FNP
Office of Health Promotion
Virginia Commonwealth University
Richmond, VA 23284

Further Information

Hancock, L. and N. Henry. "Perceptions, Norms and Tobacco Use in College Residence Hall Freshmen: Evaluation of a Social Norms Marketing Intervention," (2003) in The Social Norms Approach To Preventing School And College Age Substance Abuse: A Handbook For Educators, Counselors, And Clinicians, Ed. H. Wesley Perkins. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Contains sample posters, testimonies of VCU students who have been "Always Smokefree," and testimonials of students who have quit smoking.

**Portions of the information presented on this page were originally prepared by Michael Haines and Richard Rice and are printed here with their permission.