Commentary: Influence in the Social Sphere and its Impact on Culture

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In 2000, 23 percent of teens smoked. Thanks to nearly 15 years of hard work by the truth® youth smoking prevention campaign and other comprehensive tobacco control efforts at the federal and state levels, now only nine percent of teens do. While this is an epic step forward, the fight is far from over. Big Tobacco didn’t disappear. According to the 2014 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on the Health Consequences of Smoking, if tobacco trends continue at the current trajectory, 5.6 million children alive today under 18 will die prematurely as a result of smoking. Tobacco companies continue to adapt their tactics and now, thanks to social media, smokers themselves have inadvertently become their best marketers – whether they recognize it or not.

For generations, Hollywood’s masters of special effects have found ways for actors to make smoking look cool. Now, through the power of social media, everyone is a ‘celebrity’ in their own social circles and networks, whether they have 50 or 50,000 followers. Every “like” and every “share” of a smoking-related picture or image on social media is a potential thumbs-up for Big Tobacco. We want everyone – no matter how large their social sphere of influence may be – to realize just how much power they have to shape and shift culture.

Truth’s ‘Finish It’ campaign shines a light on the fact that smoking images have impact, including those of celebrities. Each smoking image can affect societal acceptance of and subsequent behavior around smoking and use of tobacco products. To draw attention to this, truth’s Finish It aired two ads, titled “Unpaid” and “Response” during the hugely popular MTV Video Music Awards broadcast – with the hope of sparking conversations around the idea that, without even knowing it, celebrities can be unpaid spokespeople for the tobacco industry.

But we can’t lose sight of the fact that tobacco imagery in the movies also continues to be a powerful driver of youth smoking. And there is a lot of it: In 2013, youth rated PG-13 movies delivered 10.4 billion tobacco impressions to national audiences. The two most recent Surgeon General Reports concluded that if an industry-wide standard was adopted to rate movies with tobacco scenes with an “R,” it could reduce the number of teen smokers by nearly one in five (18 percent). According to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) factsheet, mandating an “R” rating to future movies with smoking would be expected to prevent one million deaths from smoking among children alive today. Every year, research shows us how powerful movies can be – even more powerful than tobacco ads. Data also demonstrates that the depiction of cigarette smoking in movies continues to glamorize its use for young people and substantially increases smoking initiation by youth.

While a few media companies have adopted their own policies to address this public health problem, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has to date declined to adopt an industry-wide policy. The result: the CDC cites evidence that that exposure to on-screen smoking will recruit 6.4 million smokers from among today’s children, including two million who will die prematurely from tobacco-induced diseases. This illustrates that often, without realizing the consequences, celebrities can be unpaid spokespeople for the tobacco industry on screen as well as off.

This campaign calls on the influential power that each person has online and provides a platform to grow a true social movement and foster social change via social media channels. truth aims to empower teens to make the fight against tobacco use their own and to remind them that their generation can accelerate the decline in youth smoking and even end it for good. No other generation has the creativity, numbers and ingenuity to use their collective influence for good than this one does. Ending the tobacco epidemic – and saving nearly 500,000 American lives each year in the process – is well within our grasp.  Together, let’s FINISH IT!

Robin Koval
CEO & President


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    Fr. Jack Kearney

    September 18, 2014 at 1:06 PM

    Hmmm….the interchangeable use of “smoking” and “tobacco” makes Legacy look like it has more of a political agenda than a scientific or therapeutic one. It rails against ecigs while it takes lots of money from pharmaceutical companies….which are losing big money because smokers are realizing that ecigs are a more effective way to quit smoking than patches and gums. It’s time to leave politics out of this and just concentrate on what actually helps smokers.

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