CHICAGO - If a cool camel could make youngsters want to smoke, researchers reasoned, then a smart-alecky penguin, walrus, bear and buzzard might help them shun the habit.
The buzzard was a flop. But cartoonish sketches of the three other animals, drawn in cool poses a la Joe Camel on mock tobacco warning labels and signs, were a hit with schoolchildren involved in the research.
Warnings featuring the cartoon animals were rated as more believable than those showing only printed messages, according to a study of 580 youngsters in December's Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
The smart-aleck characters ''may be particularly appealing to the rebellious nature of adolescents,'' the researchers wrote.
Joe Camel was created by R.J. Reynolds but was banned in advertising as part of the nation's $206 billion tobacco settlement because of allegations that the character was leading youngsters to take up smoking.
Reynolds has said Joe Camel was aimed at young adults, not children. But the researchers noted that a focus group of youngsters in the study called him a ''cool dude.''
Researchers Sonia Duffy of the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System in Michigan and Dee Burton of the University of Illinois in Chicago surveyed children from kindergarten through 12th grade in Chicago's public schools.
Youngsters were shown two currently used warnings - ''Smoking kills'' and ''Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and may complicate pregnancy.'' The warnings were either plain, printed messages or featured the cartoon animals leaning nonchalantly against signs bearing the warnings.
Students of all ages rated ''Smoking kills'' as the less important and believable of the two printed messages. And while the devilish-looking walrus was the favorite, all of the cartoon messages got higher ratings than the plain ones.
The findings suggest that the cartoon warnings would increase children's awareness about the dangers of smoking, Duffy said.
At least one-fourth of American high school students are smokers.
Ron Todd, director of tobacco control for the American Cancer Society, praised the idea of using ''image-based campaigns'' to reach young people but said the study results are not conclusive enough to warrant starting an anti-smoking campaign using cartoon characters.
In addition, he said, such campaigns might even backfire among adults, who ''might take it as more of a joke.''
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