Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

By Rachel Allan

It’s the new year and the time is ripe for a new you! The weekend papers were chocka-block with articles and advertising aiming to make the most of our regretful festive gluttony.

A traditional new year resolution is to give up smoking.  To motivate smokers along this year Public Health England has launched a new advertising campaign which builds on the infamous ‘fatty cigarette’ campaign funded by the Department of Health and developed by the British Heart Foundation in 2004 (check it out – smoking in a pub!).

So far so familiar.

What makes this new year a bit different is that Philip Morris, one of the biggest manufacturers of cigarettes in the world, also wants the UK to give up smoking.  However, rather than taking their products off the shelf the ‘Campaign for a Smokefree World’ funded by Philip Morris would like you to consider picking up an alternative – e-cigarette anyone?

Putting aside the moral complications of a tobacco company campaigning for a ‘smoke-free world’, from a communications perspective this is a fascinating case of ‘managing a narrative’.  Their new year, new us! strategy is pinned on developing a new legitimacy focussed on ‘harm reduction’.  This won’t be easy – research out today suggests that 50% of teens who use e-cigarettes will covert to tobacco raising further questions about the tactics of big tobacco.

All this kerfuffle has got me thinking about the influence tobacco public health campaigns and policy have had.  ZPB has recently been working with the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) secretariat. The FCTC was the first global public health treaty and came into force way back in 2005 – the UK ratified the treaty in 2004. The FCTC seeks to support and guide countries to put into place the most effective, evidence based, policies and structures to limit the damage done by tobacco. It’s damage that goes beyond health to finances, development and also the environment.

Learning from tobacco public health campaigning and policies is evident in how we approach obesity and alcohol and the complexity of their own ‘industry vs public health’ challenges.  And because tobacco is such a sprawling issue it is also central to sustainable development and climate change.  This has been recognised by the United Nations Development Programme and their sustainable development goals.

Tobacco control may feel like yesterday’s news but it remains at the forefront of public health campaigning and now sustainable development.  Considering where we are in January 2018 it looks like it’ll be one to watch, and learn from, for some time to come.