World No Tobacco Day and why it still matters

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By Dr Caroline Moraes, Senior Lecturer in Marketing
Department of Marketing, University of Birmingham

I hope to see a future where we have all stopped smoking, making World No Tobacco Day and threat-based social marketing become redundant.

The need to curb tobacco consumption due to its detrimental health effects is still a topical issue, despite the many years of research and campaigning against smoking. Tobacco corporations are still marketing their products near schools in countries around the world, exposing young children to advertisements for cigarettes on a daily basis. The media are recurrently criticised for showing too many smoking scenes, including in shows that are targeted at young audiences. Even governments are choosing to ignore existing evidence on the harmful effects of smoking, overturning smoking bans in restaurants and bars despite anti-smoking petitions.

However, we have seen progress, too. The number of strict bans on smoking in many countries is growing, with New York City attempting to restrict second-hand smoking on the streets. New research is being done on the effects and potential uses of e-cigarettes, to help people quit smoking. In the UK, we now have a strong anti-smoking culture and 20% of the smokers who quit in the beginning of 2017 have been successful at giving up cigarettes for good. UK statistics also show that, since 2010, smoking has seen a 6% decline among young people aged 18 to 24. In fact, overall smoking prevalence in England has fallen considerably over the last decades.

These positive changes are a cumulative effect of a number of upstream and downstream interventions. But I believe that social marketing campaigns aimed at behavioural change have played a significant role in the positive statistics we see today. Social marketing has done a great job at scaremongering us to stop smoking, whether we like it or not. We have seen some truly frightening anti-smoking campaigns in the media over the years, which remain available online. Try searching for ‘anti-smoking adverts’ on YouTube for some truly gory social marketing content.

Many marketing and behaviour change researchers are critical of social marketing approaches tapping into negative consumer emotions to change unhealthy behaviours. In fact, there is much criticism of the onus social marketing places on us, as individual consumers, for self-discipline and moral responsibility. However, our bodily anxieties tend to push us toward healthier lifestyle attempts, whether or not we agree with the use of threat appeals that seek to get us to mend our ways.

Also, despite years of controversy regarding the effectiveness of threat appeals used in these social marketing campaigns, the fact is that shock and fear work. New research suggests that eliciting consumer shock and fear is effective at positively affecting consumer awareness, attitudes, intentions and behaviours. This is particularly the case in contexts of behavioural change interventions that seek to nudge us to stop smoking.

So it comes as no surprise that each year, on 31st May, the World Health Organisation celebrates World No Tobacco Day (WNTD), by stressing the health threats linked to tobacco consumption. As an ex-smoker and consumer researcher, I hope to see a future where we have all stopped smoking, making WNTD and threat-based social marketing become redundant.

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