Leading by example

Change is neither instant nor easy, especially when we’re talking about consumer habits.

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg R 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Andrew Burton)
New York mayor Michael Bloomberg R 311
(photo credit: 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 Israel.
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 quit.
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 mistake.
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 function.
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 Bloomberg.
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.
New 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 worked.
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).
The 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 less.
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 issue.
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.