Smoking Killed Almost 8 Million People in 2019. Can Better Anti‑Smoking Campaigns Help Fix This?


May 28, 2021


A new study published in The Lancet states that smoking killed almost 8 million people in 2019, which can be traced back to more than 150 million people taking up smoking in 1999. The study further specified that young people were more likely to pick up smoking, with over 89% of smokers facing addiction by the age of 25.

India is among the 10 countries that make up two-thirds of the world’s smoking population. Though the country has the Cigarettes And Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003, which regulates tobacco production, distribution, and consumption and a ban on tobacco advertising via the Cable Television Networks Amendment Act, the problem persists. These acts have failed to keep up with research and modern discoveries about secondhand smoke and young people’s high likelihood of picking up smoking.

“Young people are particularly vulnerable to addiction, and with high rates of cessation remaining elusive worldwide, the tobacco epidemic will continue for years to come unless countries can dramatically reduce the number of new smokers starting each year,” the study’s lead author Marissa Reitsma, a researcher at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, told The Guardian. “Despite progress in some countries, tobacco industry interference and waning political commitment have resulted in a large and persistent gap between knowledge and action on global tobacco control,” the study’s co-author, Vin Gupta added.

However, another major failure — both globally and in India — has been public health messaging about smoking. Tobacco advertising, though banned, sneaks its way into public attention via films, merchandise, and other surreptitious forms of advertising. In comparison, public service announcements rely on obvious emotional blackmail to get their point across — rather unsuccessfully. From Mukesh, the individual with mouth cancer cautioning against smoking to children guilting smoking dads, these ads rely on disapproval of smoking — a habit that is seen as interesting and cool partly due to the disapproval directed towards it. It is safe to say that these ads are counterproductive. Plus, they fail to target a critical audience — young people picking up smoking.

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Indian Anti‑Smoking Laws Have Failed to Change Cultural Acceptance of Smoking

In contrast, health communications research has shown that challenging social norms or their perception can change the way people behave and perceive smoking. In a campaign called “Addicted Ashtray,” an addict is seen picking up a half-smoked cigarette from an ashtray, which directly challenges the notion that smoking is “cool” and presents a disgusting side to the habit.

Research has advocated for the use of socio-cognitive theory in promoting positive health habits. Scaring people into good health habits is clearly ineffective, because individual habits and individual people do not determine their own health all the time. As researchers in Psychology and Health journal write, “A comprehensive approach to health promotion requires changing the practices of social systems that have widespread detrimental effects on health rather than solely changing the habits of individuals.”

Research also shows that positive attitudes of people and their peers towards preventative healthcare can influence them to quit smoking. Further, making people who fight addiction feel represented also helps push these positive attitudes, such as in the campaign ad documenting tips on how to quit from former smokers.


Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.


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