There’s a Grassroots Movement Taking on Big Tobacco -- and It’s Winning

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It takes a phenomenal effort to build a successful grassroots movement –- and that’s especially true when you’re taking on Big Tobacco. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids has shown that it’s up for the fight, working with Change.org to take on the tobacco industry at local, state, national, and international levels.

Tobacco kills nearly half a million people in the United States and about six million people worldwide each year. In the coming decades, 80% of these deaths will occur in low- and middle-income countries. And it’s not just cigarettes – 14.7% of U.S. high school boys use smokeless tobacco, such as snuff or chewing tobacco.

If nothing is done about this, tobacco use will kill over 1 billion people in the 21st century.

So how does a group of grassroots organizations work together to take on an industry that brings in profits of over $44 billion every year?

Much of the success fighting tobacco use in the United States has come thanks to coalitions of anti-tobacco organizations pushing for legislation to drive down tobacco use. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, along with a coalition of allied organizations, recently launched a series of legislative pushes fighting for laws that require smoke-free indoor public places, starting with an effort in New Orleans.

 

Starting Small: Working for a Smoke-Free New Orleans

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At the start of this campaign, the New Orleans City Council was considering a bill that would prohibit smoking in almost all public spaces, including bars, concert venues, and casinos.

When you think about New Orleans, you might think about Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras, but the city also has a casino. This meant health advocates efforts were up against not only the tobacco industry, but also the powerful casino lobby. As a result, there was significant political pressure to either defeat the bill or include amendments that would drastically weaken it.

But Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and its partners were up for the challenge. Working as a part of Smoke-Free NOLA, a group of allied organizations, they launched a Change.org Sponsored Campaign to build a targeted supporter-base, which allowed them not only to send thousands of messages supporting the bill to the city council, but also to build up their offline efforts. The people they connected with on Change.org became incredible advocates, attending public hearings to voice their support for the bill.

Despite aggressive attacks on the bill, including legal challenges backed by Harrah’s Casino, the bill was unanimously passed on January 22nd, and soon after signed into law by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, with none of the major amendments that would have weakened it. It’s a huge win for all of the organizations working to fight tobacco use and protect the public’s right to breathe clean air.

 

Next Up: Taking Big Tobacco out of the Big Leagues

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On the heels of this great success, Tobacco-Free Kids launched a national effort to drive tobacco – especially smokeless tobacco – out of Major League Baseball stadiums. They returned to Change.org to start a second Sponsored Campaign targeting the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, requesting it prohibit smokeless tobacco use at the city’s sports venues, including AT&T Park, home of the World Champion San Francisco Giants.

Chewing tobacco has long been a part of baseball’s image -– for decades, American children have watched baseball players spitting out tobacco or playing with bulges in their cheeks. When athletes use tobacco, the kids who look up to them take notice.

As one CDC expert puts it, “Athletes serve as role models for youth, and smokeless tobacco manufacturers have used advertising, images, and testimonials featuring athletes and sports to make smokeless tobacco products appear attractive to youth.”

With over 2,000 signatures on its Change.org petition, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids was able to send a message to the Board of Supervisors – San Francisco wants tobacco out of its ballparks. The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the legislation. And on May 8th, Mayor Ed Lee signed the bill banning all tobacco in baseball parks, making San Francisco the first city in the country to enact such a ban. An incredible victory!

Tobacco-Free Kids is working to turn the San Francisco victory into a national movement, with a recent Sponsored Campaign targeting Los Angeles, home of the Dodgers.

 

Thinking Big: Taking On Tobacco Advertising Internationally

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While localized victories like this have helped drive the reduction in tobacco use in the United States, Tobacco-Free Kids has also set its sights on reducing tobacco use around the world. One key strategy is to ban tobacco advertising, including Philip Morris International’s newest ad campaign, “Be Marlboro.”

Like Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man in the 1990s, the newest Marlboro campaign is accused of using themes and imagery that appeal to young people. It uses advertisements showing the flashy, hip lifestyles of young smokers, and sponsored parties, concerts, and events aimed at young demographics.

To protect children and teens from these advertisements, Tobacco-Free Kids ran a Sponsored Campaign aimed at pressuring governments around the world to ban the Be Marlboro campaign in their home countries.

Taking on Big Tobacco is no easy mission, and there’s a long road to eliminating the death and disease caused by tobacco. But with its Sponsored Campaign victories, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids has shown that through a coordinated effort, real life-saving change is possible.


Peter Schmitt is an Associate Client Manager at Change.org.