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Another Voice: Big Tobacco's new ad campaign comes up short

By Maansi Bansal-Travers

The wait will soon be over. More than 11 years after a federal court order, Big Tobacco will finally begin a print and TV campaign to let Americans know about the dangers of cigarette smoking. But don’t get too excited – the campaign is lackluster at best.

Starting Nov. 26, Big Tobacco will run a full-page ad in approximately 50 newspapers once a month for five months. These ads will appear on Sundays, but readers of The Buffalo News won’t see them. In fact, only two newspapers in New York State – both in New York City – will run the ads.

Perhaps you’ll catch one of the television ads instead. But don’t blink – you might miss them. Over the course of a year, 260 spots will air – a single spot airing once nightly, on only one major network. Normally, such advertisements would be of great interest to me. I’ve spent my career as a researcher in the field of health behavior focusing on the tactics and strategies that tobacco companies use to sell more cigarettes, despite the consequences for individuals and communities.

But Big Tobacco isn’t doing this because it cares. This limited ad campaign is the result of United States v. Philip Morris USA Inc., a 1999 court case that dragged out until 2006, when five major tobacco companies were convicted of racketeering and ordered to publicly admit the dangers of smoking. Perhaps it’s no surprise – given Big Tobacco’s money and power – that it has taken 11 years for the ads to finally come to fruition.

This campaign will do little to change the fact that smoking is the leading cause of preventive death. According to the New York State Department of Health, more than 2.2 million New York adults still smoke and more than 26,000 die as a result each year.
Smoking is a costly and deadly habit that is notoriously hard to kick. The only silver lining for New Yorkers is that free and proven resources are available to help them quit for good.

Quit coaches with the New York State Smokers’ Quitline are available seven days a week to help smokers get through the toughest challenges of quitting. Most callers will qualify for two weeks of free nicotine replacement therapy patches, and those who are on Medicaid may be eligible for extended benefits. The Quitline is, of course, just a starting point. An addiction as strong as smoking typically requires further support in order to beat it, with health care providers, family members, friends and co-workers all playing a vital role in helping a smoker quit.

If the new ads from Big Tobacco might somehow have a positive effect as well, then great. But don’t count on it – especially when Big Tobacco has lied to us for more than 50 years, pursuing profits over public good. Unlike the cigarettes that it manufactures, Big Tobacco’s “slap on the wrist” ad campaign won’t be nearly as addicting. Not even close.

Maansi Bansal-Travers, Ph.D., is a research scientist in the Department of Health Behavior at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

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