Are anti-smoking campaigns effective?

On World No-Tobacco Day, The Bridge Chronicle looks to address what is missing from the anti-smoking campaigns, and how can they be more effective.
The ill-effects of smoking and how to change the cool perception
The ill-effects of smoking and how to change the cool perceptionImage: The Bridge Chronicle

When we think about an anti-smoking/anti-tobacco campaign, one of the first thing that comes to our mind is the advertisement featuring Mukesh.

Yes! It's the one where Mukesh narrates how he began consuming tobacco, and was now suffering from mouth cancer. The visuals are so haunting that sometimes, I even get nightmares about it for no reason. (kidding, not!) Another anti-smoking campaign is the one where the daughter urges the father to quit smoking. The campaign follows an advertisement explaining how smoking leads to death, which worries the child, making the father quit smoking.

Another active part of the anti-smoking campaign is putting horrifying images of mouth cancer on the cover of cigarette boxes and tobacco packets. However, none of these images has ever deterred people who smoke from smoking or consuming tobacco.

We all know that smoking is injurious to health, and we know it causes cancer. We know it can land us in trouble. And yet, smoking is one of the most widespread activities that bring a global community together.

How did smoking become cool?

The history goes back to the advertising campaign run by Marlboro when the company first advertised smoking through cowboys. It was a strategic way of positioning the brand, as cowboys already had a desirable image. These men were young charming & rugged, who could care and provide for a house. (Read: Everything a woman wanted, and a man wanted to be) The advertisements featured cowboys weathering great difficulties and then enjoying a smoke. They developed a positive association with smoking being a "cool" activity and also a lifestyle.

Additionally, Hollywood films in the early 50s and 60s showed homemakers (women) smoking in social settings. Thus, making smoking an acceptable activity in the household environment. But this was majorly the upper class. However, soon the concept of "trailer mom" — someone who smokes and drinks because of the stress in her life — became a regular portrait of women in Hollywood films. This portrayal further helped in removing the class concept associated with smoking for women.

Further, through Mad Men, smoking entered the lives of the advertising industry. The series popularised smoking as an in-office activity, especially making it a sign of taking a break.

Thus through the medium of media, smoking became a normalised and regularised activity. It became a lifestyle, an indicator of stress, and a socialising activity.

Why are we unable to control the rise of smokers?

Though constant efforts are being made to make people realise that smoking is essentially bad for our health, there seems to be no change. A study published in The Lancet specifies that smoking is a habit people catch on early in life, with over 89 per cent becoming addicts by the age of 25. The report also states that smoking killed almost 8 million people in the year 2019, of which more than 150 people had taken up smoking in 1999.

Hence proving that smoking starts at a young age, and to control the spread of the epidemic, it has to be nabbed then. "Young people are particularly vulnerable to addiction, and with high rates of cessation remaining elusive worldwide, the tobacco epidemic will continue for years to come unless countries can dramatically reduce the number of new smokers starting each year," says Marissa Reitsma, a researcher at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, while talking to The Guardian.

"Despite progress in some countries, tobacco industry interference and waning political commitment have resulted in a large and persistent gap between knowledge and action on global tobacco control," Vin Gupta added.

Additionally, India is among ten countries that constitute the world's two-thirds of the smoking population. Despite the Cigarettes And Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003, which regulates production, distribution and consumption not much has been achieved.

This (in effect) can be attributed to the high level of income generated through tobacco products in the country.

How can we make smoking 'un'cool?

There is a clear need to alter the way smoking is perceived among the population. Especially, since the emotional blackmailing through advertisements does not seem to garner expected results. There is a need to come up with more innovative ways to approach the sensitisation around smoking and it's ill-effects.

Studies in the field of health communications have shown that questioning the social acceptance of smoking can effectively change the way people perceive smoking. An interesting campaign called "Addicted Ashtray," shows an addict picking up a half-smoked cigarette from an ashtray. Thus, portraying the activity to be "uncool" and induce disgust towards the habit.

Socio-cognitive theories, are also considered to be an effective way to promote healthy habits in people; according to research. The Psychology and Health journal published a paper where researchers said, “A comprehensive approach to health promotion requires changing the practices of social systems that have widespread detrimental effects on health rather than solely changing the habits of individuals.”

Additionally, publishing real-life stories about people who fight addiction can help motivate people towards quitting the doomed habit. Apart from that, strict measures need to be introduced if the government is really willing to reduce the number of smokers we create every year.

Considering the influence media has on people. It can play a vital role in creating an uncool image around smoking. Instead of showing it as an accepted lifestyle, the media can rather shun the habit, creating an uncool attitude towards smoking.

It will not be achieved in a day or two, but small steps towards the epidemic, can lead a long way towards a healthy and hearty life.

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