Bans breathe new life into smoking issue

The dangers of cigarettes is a topic the media has reported on for nearly four decades, so coming up with a new angle to this public health story has been tough.

The dangers of cigarettes is a topic the media has reported on for nearly four decades, so coming up with a new angle to this public health story has been tough.

But with an estimated 50 million Americans still smoking, anti-smoking advocates are turning to the flurry of smoking bans being enacted across the US as a way to keep the issue alive in the media.

"It is helping," notes Carter Steger, senior director for field advocacy at the American Cancer Society, which has recently been pushing the bans as a workers' rights issue.

"The health beat reporters are often the first to pick up on these types of stories," he says. "But we also got some business reporters, and even some restaurant writers have written pieces on restaurants that have become smoke-free and how diners like that better."

Bars and restaurants were among the early critics of smoking bans, arguing that they would cut into business. But David Johnson, CEO of Atlanta-based Strategic Vision, says many of these same restaurateurs and bar owners now realize there's a significant PR benefit to being seen on the right side of this debate.

Johnson represents the Georgia Restaurant Association and was able to get appearance on CNN, BBC, and CNBC when that state enacted a smoking ban for bars and restaurants.
"The news hook was simply that it was happening in Georgia, where people would have never expected it," he says. "So this was a chance for the association to use its support for the ban to drive home the message that restaurant dining is part of healthy eating and healthy lives."

Because many of these smoking-ban battles are often fought in individual cities or at the county level, MWW Group senior account executive Ashley Chappell says, "We end up getting a lot of local TV and a lot of radio."

MWW Group represents the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Montgomery County and the Bucks Country Tobacco Control Project, and Chappell notes that when it comes to smoking-ban stories, "reporters always like to talk to youth. They also want the legislators involved in any new laws."

Steger adds the real challenge in getting reporters to cover smoking bans isn't helping them to understand the health story. Instead, it's getting them to grasp the nuances of the public policy debate.

"The devil is often in the details," she says. "We spend a lot of time educating that even legislation that seems good may not end up benefiting the greatest number of people."

PITCHING... smoking-ban stories

Offering to participate in smoking-ban stories can be a great way for bars, restaurants, and other venues to promote themselves as good neighbors and corporate citizens

Much of the current tobacco debate centers on teens and smoking, so pitch the concern-for-youth angle, and line up plenty of testimonials

If you happen to have clients against smoking bans, lots of luck. It may simply be best to avoid the media on this issue because it's unlikely to generate positive press

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