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Changing Tobacco Attitudes & Behavior – Combating Misleading Big Tobacco Ad Campaigns Worldwide

By Jennifer Ellis, Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Health team

The anti-tobacco movement lost a great advocate this week with the death of Warren Braren, one of the first whistle-blowers to expose the misleading advertising tactics of the tobacco industry during the 1960s and 1970s.  Braren’s 1969 testimony about the National Association of Broadcasters’ nonexistent self-regulatory program spurred a national debate that ultimately led to a congressional ban on tobacco advertising on broadcast media in the United States.

Thanks to Braren and other tobacco control advocates who have worked to hold big tobacco accountable for their deceptive marketing tactics, smoking rates in the U.S. have continued to steadily decline as public attitudes have increasingly turned against smoking. While the U.S. has come a long way since the 1960’s, there is still much to be done in the global war on tobacco.

Tobacco remains the largest preventable killer in the U.S. and costs the country more than $170 billion in healthcare expenditures and $151 billion in lost productivity each year. The situation is even more dire in many low- and middle-income countries – where more than 80% of the 6 million yearly worldwide smoking-related deaths occur.

As U.S. tobacco advertising regulations and Americans’ negative attitudes about the industry continue to grow, Big Tobacco has shifted their advertising focus to emerging markets, particularly low- and middle-income countries where there are often fewer regulations and a lack of culturally-engrained understanding about the risks of tobacco use. In these countries, Big Tobacco is taking advantage of national gaps in tobacco control and targeting young people with the same misleading advertising tactics that Braren and others in the U.S. so bravely fought against during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

U.S. regulations require Big Tobacco to report their advertising spending – which is currently more than $15 billion a year in the U.S. even without broadcast ads. In countries with no reporting requirements or regulations on tobacco advertising, this figure is much more difficult to calculate.

We cannot let history repeat itself, with a lack of regulation and public awareness allowing Big Tobacco to confuse the public with misleading advertisements that unfairly target the most vulnerable segment of the population in low- and middle-income countries around the world. Bloomberg Philanthropies is taking action with our Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use, which aims to reduce the global demand for tobacco through a comprehensive, proven approach that combines policy change with increased public awareness of the damaging consequences that smoking can have on both public health and the economy of low- and middle-income countries.  Since 2007, we have committed more than $600 million to various strategies aimed at combatting tobacco use worldwide, such as banning tobacco advertising and supporting hard-hitting mass media campaigns to combat misleading Big Tobacco advertising strategies – ultimately increasing awareness about the real consequences of tobacco use.

We are committed to continuing the legacy of Braren and other great pioneers in the anti-tobacco movement by equipping communities in low- and middle-income countries with the information and tools they need to overcome Big Tobacco’s unethical advertising techniques and learn the truth behind the glamorous facade of tobacco advertising.