Many students of PR will be familiar with the Torches of Freedom story of how one of the discipline’s “founding fathers” is said to have made it acceptable for 20th century women to light up cigarettes. Indeed, John Stauber notes that PR and tobacco “grew up together.”
In the affluent world, it has been the anti-smoking activists who have made best use of public relations in recent years by making the “habit” socially unacceptable and successfully lobbying governments to ban smoking in public.
However, cigarettes remain a legal product and, despite increased restrictions on how they can be promoted and sold, and campaigns aimed at quitting, governments continue to benefit from tax income (albeit offset by costs in healthcare). Taxation is of course, one of the tactics used to force smokers to quit – but it does send a mixed message at the same time.
Now Bill and Melinda Gates are joining with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to put their money behind a campaign taking on Big Tobacco in the developing world.
In the UK, the tobacco industry barely made a PR squeak in the face of last year’s smoking in public bans – but clearly the focus has shifted to parts of the world where there is a much larger market and little PR opposition at present.
Smoking is said to have killed 5 million people in 2000 alone – and the Gates Foundation cites some shocking statistics, highlighting how households in some of the world’s poorest countries spend many times more on tobacco than education.
The big money approach being taken to counter the marketing moves of the tobacco companies in these countries includes “campaigns to persuade people of the inadvisability of smoking, and efforts to induce governments to impose bans”.
There is undoubtedly much that can be learned from decades of PR activities aimed at reversing Bernays’ work, which still seems to be the main strategy of the tobacco giants, in making smoking appear glamorous.
The reality of smoking is anything but glamorous – from the smell and health issues to the cost concerns. But too many young people in developed countries are still getting the message that smoking is a right of passage, whilst elsewhere in the world, the perceived pleasure of a cigarette continues the legacy of misery that Bernays laid claim to having created.