Leading by example
Change is neither instant nor easy, especially when we’re talking about consumer habits.
New York mayor Michael Bloomberg Photo: REUTERS/Andrew Burton
This past Thursday was the 25th annual World No Tobacco Day (WNTD). The day was
set aside by the World Health Organization (WHO) primarily to raise awareness of
the dangers of smoking, which kills around 6 million people a year. The idea is
that smokers should abstain for 24 hours and hopefully use the break to quit for
good. This year, I took a special interest in the media coverage it got here in
I recently quit smoking and it was one of the most difficult
things I ever had to do. There are many methods people employ to
Some go “cold turkey” others need more complex techniques. I went
to a support group sponsored by my Health Fund.
In any event, the news
out of the Israeli media was a mixed bag.
While some news websites did
write about the encouraging statistics showing that smoking here is at an
all-time low, the overwhelming majority of the reports I saw were about the
problems and not the solutions. Some could even be defined as cynical. That’s a
Obviously, the general public needs to be made aware of the
issue, but it is more important that smokers have hope that they can quit. Most
want to kick the habit, even if they won’t admit it. That is a result of a
gradual normative change going on over the past decade. One way of doing that is
by changing terminology. In the medical community, for example, smoking is
referred to as “tobacco abuse.” Like “substance abuse,” smoking is an addiction
similar to drugs even if it doesn’t impair a person’s cognitive
While every smoker must come to the decision that it’s time to
quit, a normative shift can play a part in reaching it. One of the politicians
who understands this principle all too well is New York City Mayor Michael
When I was living in the Big Apple, Bloomberg decided that he
would take an active role in getting New Yorkers to quit. Soon, taxes on
cigarettes skyrocketed. Not only could smokers not light up anywhere indoors,
but most places outside were also forbidden.
Bloomberg didn’t set out to
make smokers pariahs – he made them out to be sick, with the subtext being that
if you smoke, you’re in need of help and the city will provide it.
York opened an anti-smoking department offering nicotine substitute products,
free of charge, and a hotline which provided a professional support system to
help smokers kick the habit. I never took advantage of it while I was living
there but I did cut my smoking down considerably.
The press was adamantly
against the move. The left wing lambasted him for taking away people’s right to
choose. The right wing was against the blow to the tobacco companies and the
right to sell.
Both used the “slippery slope” argument, claiming that if
Mayor Bloomberg managed to get these measures passed, who knows what would come
next? The proposals were made into law, and guess what? They
Fewer people now smoke in New York City. No more smoky bars or
restaurants. People are healthier.
Were there people who lost income?
Were there others who had their rights infringed upon? Sure, but isn’t there
something called the greater good? Shouldn’t changing people’s opinion about
smoking count as that? Other cities in the US and the world have since followed
New York’s example.
One thing critics were right about was that Bloomberg
didn’t stop there. His next target was the obesity epidemic which has been
sweeping through the United States for at least a decade, depending on which
study you read.
First, Bloomberg banned artificial trans-fats in
restaurant foods and required calorie counts to be posted in fast food
restaurants. Now he wants to make it illegal to serve sugary soft drinks in
containers larger than 16 fluid ounces (about half a liter).
restriction, if passed, would not apply to diet or non-sweetened drinks and a
customer could always buy two drinks or get a refill. Stores and supermarkets
would not be affected.
The logic behind the move is based on research
showing that the larger a portion, the more people consume. Thus, if you limit
the size of a sweetened soft drink to 16 ounces, people will drink
If you follow the voices in the American press, you would think
that Bloomberg wants to bring back prohibition. People are vehemently against
the idea and they’re using almost the same arguments as the smoking
To top it off, Bloomberg is stepping on yet another cornerstone of
American consumerism: getting a good buy.
It is beyond me how ideologues
can defend the status quo on this issue. Like tobacco addiction, obesity is now
categorized as a disease in the United States and the government on all levels
has a moral obligation to combat it. Mr.
Bloomberg is not proposing to
make it illegal to purchase more than half a liter of any drink. He is trying to
change people’s opinion and make it clear that you shouldn’t be consuming so
much of a sugary beverage to begin with.
Not only should Mr. Bloomberg be
applauded for his efforts, the press should be more tolerant to him and his
motives. They, after all, have a responsibility to the public as well. Instead
of thinking of the long-term impact of such a move, journalists have been busy
with doling out shortsighted knee-jerk reactions.
Change is neither
instant nor easy, especially when we’re talking about consumer habits. We can’t
just wake up one morning and take away things which are detrimental to public
health. Be it cigarettes or portion sizes, it’s a long and drawnout process
which requires consensus building. The media plays a key role in making this
progress and should always be held accountable when it doesn’t properly balance
the pros and cons.
The writer is an independent media consultant, he can
be reached at Jeremy@ jeremyruden.com.