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Mayor Michael Bloomberg's New York City Anti-Smoking Campaign Produces Results, Yet Needs Improvement

A former cigarette addict, Mike Bloomberg has dedicated much of his time as New York mayor toward funding and encouraging a provocative anti-smoking campaign. Since 2001, in conjunction with the Health Department and Center for Disease Prevention and Control, Bloomberg has overseen tax hikes on tobacco-related products (so aggressive that $14 for a pack of cigarettes no longer shocks smokers), unprecedented bans on public smoking, and self-labeled “gruesome” ads depicting the devastating effects of smoking.

The correlations between Bloomberg’s initiatives and NYC’s public health figures are promising, albeit unassuredly causative. Compared to the national average life span rate of 78.2 years, the city now boasts an 80.6 life expectancy, which Bloomberg conveniently attributes to record lows in smoking (just 14 out of every 100 smokers, a 35% decrease from 2002). Yet, Bloomberg’s strategy of isolation: Forcing smokers underground, encouraging a dominant image of the adult addict as a degenerate and hopeless patient, etc., has diluted the noble import of the mayor’s ardor.  Notwithstanding the credible gains of his campaign, Bloomberg would benefit from a strategy that prioritized the causes, and not merely the vastly-documented repercussions, of smoking. For young kids, a mixture of youthful exceptionalism, recklessness, and peer pressure makes a strategy oriented around the future health risks less effective. Habits shift primarily with cultural transformation; a grassroots campaign debunking the supposed benefits of smoking — as a weight loss aid, social catalyst — constitutes a self-sustaining counterpoint to Bloomberg’s legislative war of attrition.

A bevy of new legislation has made smoking in public a burden. A pack of cigarettes fits in jean pockets more easily because of the offsetting loss in bills. New York City commercials graphically exhibiting cigarette addicts smoking out of voice box holes shamelessly accost TV audiences, unprepared addicts of everything from Sports Center to The View. The end of a typical commercial volunteers cigarette addicts to reach out to nycquits.gov, a support and rehabilitation program. 

Bloomberg has extended the reach of the program from cigarettes to smokeless tobacco products. A 2010 law requiring more prominent health warnings on advertising for products like snus and dip reminds unaware users that these products are also highly addictive. 

Some of the endeavors, however, have run up against fierce resistance. In December, a federal judge summarily rejected a NYC health regulation mandating that all tobacco-related products feature “graphic, even gruesome” images on the packets. These images would have offered more salient warnings than previous legislation requiring only black and white typed side effects. What these viscerally unnerving ads accomplish, especially for aloof new smokers, is a non-coercive means to shorten the shadow of the future, the horizon of suffering. Commercials displaying severed fingers humanize the opaque, inaccessible sound bites of addictioncanceremphysema. The devastating repercussions to a lifetime of smoking are revealed not as roll the dice chances, but as a systematic relentless breakdown that spans a lifetime.

Opponents of Bloomberg’s tactics find the ads excessively unsavory, an assault on decency. A commercial with audio of a patient heaving with emphysema indiscriminately exposes both smokers and non-smokers to sensory shock. Why expose innocent children to such traumatizing images, they argue. Tobacco executives have lampooned the mayor for violating the 1965 Labeling Act and, in essence, imposing an unfair burden on free enterprising. 

Yet, just as pedestrians do not invite smokers to defile their right to clean air by lighting up on the street, television audiences do not wish to be assaulted by upsetting commercials. 

 Bloomberg has beaconed potential immigrants with the sloganif you want to live longer, come to NYC. He is right. According to the Consumerist, “the decline [in smoking rates] will prevent 50,000 premature deaths in the next 40 years.” 

And if the enforcement reins are tightened on a May 2011 City Council ban on smoking in public parks, beaches, and pedestrian plazas, the quit smoking campaign might contribute even more prominently to those improved statistics. Bloomberg has skewed the cost-benefit analysis of smoking in a hugely positive direction. In the process, however, smokers have grown embittered with the mayor’s actions. A somewhat inscrutably named “Screw You Bloomberg Garden” organization has rallied around fighting the City Council’s infringement on public smoking. The decision appears brash and unreasonably, considering that even the mayor himself admitted that the NYPD won’t be burdened with enforcement duties quite yet. The insistence on bans and mandates has invited opponent’s claims of abuse of authority and weakened his influence with mild smokers on the delicate fringe of addiction.

Thus, it is not the goal but the means that worries. For Bloomberg’s legacy to ring positive with both smokers and non-smokers alike, he must abandon the attempt to isolate and punish established addicts. He must more actively engage with the youth. His campaign has attempted to shatter the barrier of invincibility that young people adopt to justify risky behavior. Anyone can get lung cancer from smoking, and everyone is prone to addiction, Bloomberg seems to implore. 

Yet for young users the consequences are still oceans away. Since an ever-expanding laundry list of behaviors enhances the risk of cancer, from normal goods like diet coke to artificial sweetener to red M&Ms, young people are overwhelmed by warnings and escape by drowning out all advice. Young people know that smoking could kill them: they just choose not to care because the culture still encourages smoking and tolerates denial.

Mayor Bloomberg needs to re-direct the focus on the here and now, on the subtle causes of, and not the obvious effects of, smoking. The mayor should ask himself: why do young people smoke, and how can I frame the dialogue to debunk the perceived benefits of smoking? Since many young kids ignore the negatives of smoking, move on to assaulting the supposed positives. A grassroots campaign, backed by celebrities and sports stars, aimed at altering the cultural perspectives on smoking, particularly the makeup of the smoker, is needed to complement, or even supersede, legislative action. A recent commercial featuring idolized NBA star Grant Hill seeks to reverse prevailing attitudes toward caustic jokes involving homosexuality. Hill’s response to a young player, who smirks: “Your moves are just gay,” stresses that such slurs are not only offensive to gays, but unattractive. In correlation, smoking needs to be seen not merely as offensive to your body and victims of secondhand smoke, but unconditionally uncool. A commercial featuring Ryan Gosling explaining that he prefers girls that abstain from smoking, alluding to the conception that smoking aids weight loss, would make young girls seriously reconsider lighting up in front of a group of boys. Similarly, other ads aimed at rejecting the notion of smoking as a social catalyst would weigh more heavily on the immediate concerns of young kids.

Bloomberg has come a long way towards solving a recognizable and serious public health issue. While fewer cigarette butts dot the paved pathways of Central Park these days, a closer examination still catches young kids sneaking off behind rocks to have their first smoke. The solution, to ensuring that those kids in the park do not end up like the medical patients they see on TV, lies not in prohibition or warning, but in a fundamental transformation of opinion. Stop the cultish cancer at its genesis, at the playgrounds and school dances, and you can go a long way towards stopping the real cancer later.

Photo Credit: Mexico Rosel

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