18 Aug 2008
The tobacco industry spends many billions of dollars each year on advertising, promotion and sponsorship around the world, working ceaselessly to promote itself and its products to the public.  While tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship are required to be banned or restricted under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), and many countries have made good progress in banning tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, the tobacco industry’s efforts have contributed significantly to public acceptance and social normalization of tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke. To counter the tobacco industry’s influence and protect present and future generations from the tobacco epidemic, aggressive efforts are required to change social norms and educate the public about the health risks of tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke, the benefits of cessation and tobacco-free lifestyles, and the adverse health, economic, and environmental consequences of tobacco production and consumption.
A consideration of the role of public education needs to be informed by a clear understanding of the immense difficulties people have in accurately comprehending the size and severity of the risks of tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke , and an understanding of the process of cessation . Even in countries which have made significant public education efforts, people still vastly underestimate the extent and severity of the risks of tobacco related disease. For example, most smokers are unable to name more than a handful of smoking related diseases and few are able to accurately estimate their chances of dying in middle age due to smoking. Tobacco dependence is a chronic disease that often requires repeated interventions and multiple attempts to quit. Because tobacco use is addictive, users’ thinking processes are distorted, giving prominence to thoughts which justify continuing use, and discounting reasons for quitting.
Effective, sustained public awareness and education activities that emphasize the serious adverse consequences of tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke in a way that people cannot easily ignore or discount are a vital component of a comprehensive tobacco prevention and cessation program. When executed effectively , public awareness and education activities influence individual and population-level behaviors and contribute to policy change. They are effective in reducing initiation among young people, encouraging tobacco users to quit, reducing non-smokers’ exposure to secondhand smoke, and changing the social context of tobacco use so that pro-tobacco messages are no longer dominant.