Myth Communication: Selling a Smoke-Free Society

Speech at Reason Weekend

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Treating risky behavior like a contagious illness has troubling implications. If the government is authorized to discourage personal decisions that might lead to disease or injury, there is no end to the interventions that could be justified--and no safe harbor for individual freedom.

Given our tradition of limited government, I think most Americans are reluctant to join the march toward a smoke-free society under the banner of "the public health," which turns out to be little more than a fig leaf for paternalism. Tobacco's opponents have therefore offered a series of arguments intended to overcome the suspicion that their movement is aimed at protecting people from themselves.

I'll discuss seven of these arguments. Five of them question the legitimacy of the decision to smoke because of the circumstances in which it is made. The other two arguments suggest that smokers do not harm only themselves, so the government should step in to protect innocent third parties.

If cigarettes have no benefits, as Scott Ballin says, it's a bit of a puzzle why so many people continue to smoke them. One answer is that

People smoke because of advertising.

This argument relies on a perception of advertising as a mysterious force that seduces people into acting against their interests. That view, which was popularized by social critics such as Vance Packard and John Kenneth Galbraith, remains influential among intellectuals and the general public--though, tellingly, people rarely apply it to their own behavior.

For someone who is convinced that companies routinely manufacture goods and then trick consumers into buying them, it's self-evident that people buy cigarettes because of advertising. But anyone who requires proof for this proposition will have a hard time finding it.

Clearly, exposure to advertising is not a necessary condition for smoking. People throughout the world smoked for centuries before the emergence of the modern tobacco industry, with its slick magazine ads, eye-catching billboards, and nifty tote bags. During this century, they smoked up a storm in countries, such as China and Russia, where the Marlboro Man was rarely seen.

Nor is exposure to advertising a sufficient condition for smoking: All of us see the ads, but only some of us smoke.

So the question is whether some smoking can be attributed to advertising, whether fewer people would be smokers if it weren't for all those images of sexy women and macho men with cigarettes. And the answer is: Maybe, but the effect has yet to be verified, let alone measured, in the real world.

Several years ago, I asked the economist Thomas Schelling, who had directed Harvard's Center for the Study of Smoking Behavior and Policy, what he thought about the claim that advertising boosts tobacco consumption. At the time I had not looked at the literature much and did not know what his views were, so I was surprised by his response. This is what he said:

"I've never seen a genuine study of the subject. Most of the discussion that I hear--even the serious discussion--is about as profound as saying, 'If I were a teenage black girl, that ad would make me smoke.' I just find it altogether unpersuasive." I've been very skeptical that advertising is important in either getting people to smoke or keeping people smoking. It's primarily brand competition." By that he meant that the main function of tobacco advertising is not persuading people to smoke but persuading them to smoke, say, Camels rather than Marlboros.

Since then I have read a lot of studies and literature reviews, and I have not seen any evidence that contradicts Schelling's assessment. Even while calling for limits on advertising and promotion, tobacco's opponents admit there is little evidence that such restrictions would have a noticeable impact on the total number of smokers.

The 1989 surgeon general's report conceded that "there is no scientifically rigorous study available to the public that provides a definitive answer to the basic question of whether advertising and promotion increase the level of tobacco consumption. Given the complexity of the issue, none is likely to be forthcoming in the forseeable future." The 1994 surgeon general's report, which focused on underage smoking, also acknowledged the "lack of definitive literature."

None of the highly publicized studies that have appeared in recent years, including the much-hyped research on Joe Camel, actually measured the impact of advertising on an individual's propensity to smoke, which is the crux of the issue. Now, it's possible that tobacco advertising has an effect that simply cannot be measured. We can imagine a case--say, an ambivalent teenager whose parents and friends smoke--where the influence of advertising might be decisive.

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