The CDC has recently begun a $54 million anti-smoking ad campaign. It is disgusting. The hope is that these graphic ads will pressure people into quitting, and they appear to be working: Since the ad started airing, calls to 1-800-QUIT-NOW have doubled, and visits to the government’s anti-smoking website have tripled.
For New Yorkers, these types of ads are nothing new: New York (and, I assume, some other states as well) has been running ads of this variety for years. And while quitting smoking is a worthwhile goal, these ads are very disturbing for a number of reasons.
First of all, they are very disturbing. I mean, they are horrific to look at. They feature close-ups of amputations, the prolonged sounds of a man struggling to breath, people talking through holes in their larynx, a mother telling her kids she has cancer, etc. Frankly, they are not things I want to see before I watch The Daily Show on Hulu.
Of course, this is the point. The ads show the potentially devastating consequences in order to deter people from smoking. Thomas Frieden, the CDC director, defended the ads on these grounds: “Although they may be tough to watch, the ads show real people living with real, painful consequences from smoking.”
But this leads to another disturbing thing about the ads: They feature real people. The use of real people with real illnesses and disfigurements makes the ads more effective, but it also makes them feel cold and inhumane, like they are parading out the grotesquely diseased as cautionary tales. The ads implicitly condemn the very people they feature (and those they purport to help) for choosing to smoke in the first place. I’m sure nobody was forced to do these ads, and that the participants feel like they are doing their duty to help others, but it still feels like they are being publicly humiliated for our benefit. We don’t spend millions of dollars to publicly shame people who drive gas-guzzlers, or the obese, or those who have attempted suicide, even though all three are serious social problems as well.
This drastic measure would possibly have been necessary ten or fifteen years ago, when the tobacco industry was still obfuscating the real effects of smoking, but that has not been the case for at least 15 years. By now, the fact that smoking is dangerous is common knowledge. Tobacco companies cannot advertise on TV or near schools, and public smoking bans are now in effect in 27 states.
In other words, these ads are completely unnecessary to inform people of the dangers of smoking. People know the dangers of smoking, and these ads are not providing any new information. There are no data or statistics—if anything, the ads are preying upon peoples’ fears about tobacco. They imply that any smoking at all can lead to these gruesome effects.
The ad campaign, then, is not a way to inform the public of new information or dispel common myths, but a kind of state-sponsored Ludovico technique designed to associate smoking and tobacco with the grotesque, tragic, and disturbing. It is propaganda, plain and simple.
It may be easy to accept propaganda when the target is something like smoking, which is reviled by almost everyone who doesn’t smoke and even some who do. Even I can’t help preferring New York City bars, where cigarettes are banned, to bars in cities without bans, even though, philosophically, I oppose the bans.
Still, though, the existence of a $54 million national propaganda campaign frightens me, and it ought to frighten you. The government should not be trying to condition behavior, even if it’s behavior I like. Some defend the program by saying that the government has a clear interest in preventing smoking. The diseases caused by tobacco represent a public health problem, and so the government ought to use the most effective ads possible to dissuade people from making those choices.
But this logic is dangerous. The government has a clear interest in lots of things, but that doesn’t mean it ought to be shaming or shocking people into behaving a certain way. Some form of government paternalism may be acceptable to alter incentives—high cigarette taxes, for one—but not those that rely on stigmatizing people for getting sick, or making choices we don’t agree with. Would we approve of ads like this if they were trying to get people to diet more, or join the military? What if they pressured unwed mothers to give up their children? All of these would serve obvious public policy goals…
At a certain point, we need to accept that freedom means giving people the opportunity to make bad choices, and that sometimes these choices are not in society’s long-term interest. When this happens, we shouldn’t unleash a multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign to frighten people; we ought to accept it as the price of living in an open society. Freedom, as they say, is not free.