Anti-smoking battle needs change

In just one month, traffic-flow adjustments in Ambelokipi produced tangible results: The average crossing time was reduced by five minutes, translating to 10,000 hours a day saved for all vehicles combined. But one year after the Ministry of Health published restrictions on smoking in public and private spaces, what are the results? There is no official data, but a simple investigation shows that very little has changed. Also, three months ago, authorities began printing warnings on all cigarette packets concerning the hazards of smoking. What have been the results of that measure? Again there is no data, though my local kiosk owner assures me that he is selling just as many packets of cigarettes as he did before. The press, at any rate, have informed us that there are new ingenious stickers available on the market to cover up the warnings, as well as attractive boxes in which to hide the packets with the irritating signs. At the same time, huge, sprawling billboards and ads placed on the sides of public transport vehicles lure the public into smoking. Uneven battle It really is sad to see how uneven the battle is between the health authorities and the tobacco industry in what is termed «the tobacco war.» For the past 50 years health authorities have possessed a strong weapon: proof that every day thousands of people die of smoking-related illnesses. Unfortunately, they have been unable to use this weapon to its full advantage, even though statistics prove anti-smoking campaigns are an effective way of improving public health and increasing life expectancy, even in terms of cost. For its part, the tobacco industry is motivated by profit and armed with marketing strategies. Thus, faced with an adversary that applies almost amateur methods, top-notch professionals in the tobacco world succeed in winning most battles by selecting, every so often and with great deliberation, their new targets. Ever since the time of King James I in England, restrictive measures have done nothing to serve anti-smoking drives. The ineffectiveness of restrictive measures on the general public is best illustrated historically by the US prohibition. Of course, in America today there are far fewer smokers than in the past, which was mainly brought about by non-smoker initiatives aiming for protection from the hazards of passive smoking. In Greece, though, where 45 percent of the population are smokers and where violators are viewed with sympathy (would an American ever dare flash his headlights at an oncoming car to warn of a police blockade?), such a move appears doomed to fail. TV and cigarettes In 1987, following a European Union directive, advertising cigarettes on television was banned – a very positive development, in theory at least. Its effectiveness, however, was canceled out by the fact that the act of smoking is still widely portrayed in television programs. Indirect product promotion (known as «gray» advertising) is even more pervasive than direct advertising. In most television series in Greece, the actors smoke even when it does not serve the storyline. One could, for example, understand why there’s a cigarette in the hand of a detective in a film noir or a bankrupt businessman in a social drama; but it is incomprehensible that screenwriters and directors portray their characters smoking even in regular family shows. Sometimes you even see actors smoking with such vehemence that you suspect they couldn’t do without a cigarette even for the duration of the shoot. Similar thoughts run through the public’s minds when they see a popular journalist smoking on a talk show, illustrating her arguments through rings of smoke. The said journalist, who will remain unnamed, has herself stated that «the truth is that smoking is very harmful» and that she would never suggest smoking to anyone. It is however, strange that, knowing the power the media has over the public, she does not see the contradiction between her statement and the example she sets. Americans today smoke less than in the past. Nevertheless each day some 2,050 people aged 12-17 start smoking and of them, approximately one third, die at a young age from smoking-related illnesses. This is the tobacco industry’s new target group. A scholarly study recently published in one of the world’s leading medical journals shows that the reason why most (52 percent) teenagers aged 10-14 began smoking is that they saw films in which the actors smoked. This is a stronger reaction than the 32 percent of people who were drawn to smoking by tobacco advertisements. Tobacco manufacturers have known this for years: That the subconscious effect of a popular movie star smoking is a lot stronger than a billboard or an advertisement. Smoking in films triples the likelihood of a teenager taking up smoking – and this especially applies to children whose parents are non-smokers. This is all bad news. The good news though, according to the writers of the report, is that by restricting smoking in films we can restrict smoking in teenagers. Another article in the same journal suggests that one way to curb smoking scenes in films is to apply a rating system similar to that used for profanity or violence in films. Of course, the same would also apply to television programs. Now there’s a good proposal for the National Broadcasting Council. Should this rating system be applied, there is evidence to suggest that it would be a lot more effective in reducing the number of smokers than restrictions in restaurants and cafes, or lurid warnings on cigarette packets have been. Furthermore, it will not provoke smokers into statements concerning personal freedoms with references to Sartre and «Casablanca.» This measure does not target smokers who have made «a conscious decision,» but young non-smokers whose protection is our duty. (1) T.D. Moundokalakis is a professor of pathology at the Athens University Medical School.