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Good Lessons from the Tobacco Industry

“All those in favor of the motion to ban smoking in our meetings, please raise your hand,” directed the chairman.

I had just finished my first stint as campaign worker in a provincial election. For my services, I was rewarded with a position on our local party council. The old adage about politics being “smoke-filled back rooms” seemed to be quite true. At least three-quarters of the board members were avid cigarette smokers, each taking at least two cigarettes to make it through a meeting.

I took a look at my watch, and it said “1986.” At that time, it was quite well known that non-smokers were uncomfortable with second-hand smoke and were unwillingly exposed to its harmful toxins. I was questioning my sanity for putting up with second-hand smoke as a volunteer as I was already exposed to too much of it in my workplace.

One of my non-smoking colleagues had the courage to make the motion for the smoking ban. Enough of the smokers realized the council could lose some of its volunteers and voted in favor. The motion barely passed, but it did. Thus I continued in politics for another six years, enough to give me the experience to write “Tiered Democratic Governance.”

In 1960, about 55% of all Canadians smoked, enticed by decades of clever marketing by cigarette companies to make us look wealthy, youthful, sophisticated, sexy, clever, popular, independent, rebellious, etc., etc. Smoking prevailed in all occupations and social classes. Non-smokers were culturally inculcated to provide ashtrays for their smoking family, friends, and colleagues and put up with the smell; all of which shows how well the tobacco industry had successfully entrenched its set of negative social values onto the mass population.

But also in 1960, the medical profession was starting to unite and warn us of the dangers of smoking. Slowly, slowly, the attitude changed, boosted by the medical profession and non-smoking activists.

The change has left only about 20% of Canadians as smokers today. Smoking is now mostly done in the lower economic, blue-collar classes, who are, ironically, still being influenced by advertising that was banned 35 years ago. Young people who start smoking today think of themselves as wealthy, youthful, sophisticated, sexy, clever, popular, independent, rebellious, etc., etc. when they take their first few cigarettes because these values have been passed down from smoking peer group to smoking peer group.

This tobacco transformation from a mostly smokeless society to a mostly smoking society and back again has several lessons for social reform.

If negative social reform can be realized with clever, long term, and well funded marketing campaigns, so too can positive social reform.

Social reform takes a long time. Even the tobacco industry did not get its way overnight.

A population that is better educated will eventually start making better decisions.

The political process will not help any positive social reform in its early stages. In 1965, the political process could have said: “Smoking is not good for society. Let’s do what we can to reduce it. We will start with our political meetings.”

So social reformers need to first focus on changing the perspectives of a significant minority of the population before they can convince the political players to help with the change.

To some readers, this may be a natural way of effecting change in a democratic society. To me, change should be led by the political process, rightly focusing public opinion for a better society so that public acceptance for new laws is accelerated.

Published in The Brooks & County Chronicle 2001

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