Celebrity endorsements of cancer screening tests make people want to get tested, a telephone survey shows.

But the ads, which stress the upside of cancer screening, don't always point out screening risks. That casts doubt on the public health value of the ads, suggest Robin J. Larson, MD, of the Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., and colleagues.

Larson's team reports its findings in the May 4 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

"When it comes to communicating about complex decisions such as cancer screening, the goal should not be to persuade but to inform," Larson and colleagues write. "Thus, we see no obvious role for celebrity endorsement of cancer screening."

Larson and colleagues conducted a telephone survey of a nationally representative sample of men and women for whom three cancer screening tests are most often recommended. They interviewed 500 eligible adults without a history of cancer. These included 360 women over age 40 who were asked about mammography screening for breast cancer; 140 men over 50 who were asked about PSA screening for prostate cancer; and 344 men and women over 50 who were asked about sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy screening for colon cancer.

The findings:

—73 percent of women over 40 said they had heard celebrities talk about getting mammograms. One in four said this made them more likely to get a mammogram.

—63 percent of men over 50 said they had heard celebrities talk about getting PSA testing. About a third — 31 percent — said this made them more likely to get screened.

—52 percent of men and women over 50 said they had heard celebrities talk about getting a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy. This made 37 percent more likely to undergo one of these procedures.

"We argue that even with the strongest evidence, people need balanced and accurate information about both the benefits and harms of testing, because different people may assign different values to the trade-offs involved," Larson and colleagues write. "It is not known whether celebrity endorsements increase screening utilization among individuals who stand to benefit the most from the promoted screening test."

By Daniel J. DeNoon, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCE: Larson, R.J. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, May 3, 2005; vol 97: pp 693-695.