Everywhere we walk in Paris, we are having to contend with a new public nuisance. Cigarette smoke. I had heard about France’s smoking ban earlier this year. It had seemed like a good thing. People not being able to smoke in public spaces. What I did not realize, is the ban applies to enclosed public spaces, not open air areas such as terraces, or sidewalks. Rather than being discouraged by the new law, Parisians have merely transferred their habit from indoors to the outdoors. And using the cigarette as a new excuse to socialize and make friends in strange places. The main reason is smoking is still considered the social norm in France.
Compare with California, where smoking is seen as a personal liability, that makes it hard if not impossible for people to find a date or an apartment. Why such a difference? What made people change their behavior? The response lies in the mass media campaigns that took place since 1988, when a state law increased the cigarette tax, and allocated some of that revenue to establish a comprehensive, statewide tobacco education and prevention program, including a significant mass media campaign.
What does this mean for climate change and other global environment issues? Laws can only go so far. Consumption addicts of all kinds will find ways to circumvent them to satisfy their needs. Better still, are smart, sustained nationwide education and persuasion efforts, of the kind conducted by the anti-tobacco campaigns, that turned smoking into a socially inacceptable practice, and placed the blame on the tobacco industry, not the people. The following are some key learnings from ‘Mass Media Antismoking Campaigns: A Powerful Tool for Health Promotion‘, a paper published in the Annals of Medicine.
- Not all antitobacco advertising is effective. Focus group research has suggested that commercials that expose the tobacco industry’s manipulation of young persons  or focus on themes of secondhand smoke and cigarette addiction are the most effective strategies for reducing tobacco use . Campaigns based on the short-term or long-term health effects of smoking are less effective 
- Dorfman and Wallack  have explained that the most effective counter-advertisements are those that: “challenge the legitimacy and credibility of the industry marketing the product. These are counter-ads, because they represent a clear transfer from the personal to the policy environment and focus on the corporate entity or public policy as a major player in that environment.”
- Advertisements that directly attack the tobacco industry as the source of the tobacco problem; expose the way in which the industry manipulates, deceives, seduces, and addicts children and adolescents; and highlight the way the industry maintains adult smokers as life-long drug addicts to make profits are effective in challenging the legitimacy and credibility of the industry. Moreover, these themes frame tobacco as a problem because it kills people, not because those younger than 18 years of age use it. The theme of tobacco industry manipulation also demonstrates and reinforces the concept that smoking is a behavior that undermines adolescents’ independence, reduces their control over life decisions, and makes them victims of the industry’s deceit. Rather than mobilizing young persons to rebel against directives not to smoke, campaigns based on these themes empower them to rebel against an industry that is making its profits by deceiving them; seducing them; manipulating them; addicting them; and, ultimately, killing them.
- The tobacco industry knows that messages aimed solely at changing individual behavior and focused mainly on health-related themes are ineffective in challenging social norms and are therefore unlikely to be effective in reducing tobacco use. When they were unsuccessful at eliminating mass media anti-smoking campaigns, the industry and its supporters instead attempted to control the content of the campaigns, ensuring that the result is a program that will have little ultimate impact.
I can’t help but seeing the parallels between the tobacco industry and Big Oil. It is time to expose the scandals of big oil producers and other special fossil fuel interests getting richer by the seconds at the expense of our overall well being. Time to show the dirty work of the lobbyists working for them. Time to show them as the real perpetrators, and us as the victims of their manipulations. Time to negate the effects of their ad campaigns with even better counter campaigns. Time to portray them as the drug pushers that they are, and to unveil their deliberate strategies to maintain us, the citizens, in a state of unsustainable dependence on oil and non renewable resources. If you have not yet seen the latest double spread ad from Exxon Mobil ads in the New York Times, it is worth taking a look.