The U.S. anti-smoking campaign is a great model for fighting disinformation


Russia plans to disrupt the midterm elections in Nov. That… was the surprisingly frank conclusion announced by several Trump administration officials in a joint news conference on Thurs. FBI Director Christopher Wray described what he called ongoing “information warfare” on social media. He & other members of the national security team assured the American public that they would do everything they could to protect the elections & counter Russian disinformation. Yet the briefing revealed little in the way of detail.

As U.S. officials attempt to formulate an effective response to Kremlin mischief-making, there’s one precedent that might be worth considering: the U.S. government’s anti-smoking campaign.

The effort to reduce smoking in the U.S. began in 1964, when the government acknowledged for the first time that smoking is harmful to health. By 2015, the U.S. had managed to cut the smoking rate by more than half. When the campaign began, doctors were still telling pregnant women that it was safe for them to smoke. Fifty years later, smoking has been banned in many public spaces.

What made this campaign so successful? First, the government used its regulatory powers. Much like Big Tobacco in the 1950s, the tech industry today operates in an unregulated environment. FB, Twitter & Google are all keen to avoid being treated as media companies, which would make them subject to… FCC regulations.

So far…, the companies have made only superficial changes to their platforms at the behest of new EU regulation around user data privacy. These voluntary efforts are failing to curtail the spread of disinformation, & sooner or later the tech industry will have to face the same FCC restrictions on content & advertising as traditional media — which would undoubtedly help to reduce the spread of erroneous reporting.

Second, the messenger matters. The U.S. Surgeon General, which published a 1964 report linking smoking to cancer, was a trusted government agency. Research shows that even truthful information will be dismissed by audiences if it doesn’t come from a trusted source…

Responsibility for warning the public about disinformation threats should fall to DHS & FEMA, which are responsible for providing accurate info during crises. DHS chief Kirstjen Nielsen, who participated in this week’s briefing, has described Russian interference in the U.S. elections as “a Category 5 hurricane” & announced the creation of a National Risk Management Ctr. As a first order of business, this new task force should assess how the agency can deploy its existing emergency response capabilities to counter disinformation, work with local officials & establish appropriate responses to attacks.
continued below


continued from above
Third, even though the U.S. government led the campaign to curtail smoking, it also sought help from the private sector. Civil society groups such as the Heart Assn produced advertising for tv, radio & newspapers describing the harmful effects of smoking, & the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation fought to ban smoking in public places.

Today, civil society groups such as StopFake & EU DisinfoLab are developing innovative techniques for exposing disinformation, but these efforts are nascent & strapped for resources. The State Dept.’s Global Engagement Ctr, which is the only U.S. government entity with a mandate to counter disinformation, should fund useful independent initiatives. Private foundations & tech companies should also devote significant funding to R & D in this sector, as some have already begun to do.

Fourth, the Education Department should work closely with states to reinvigorate civics education for the digital age. Just as we teach children about the health risks associated with smoking, we should also educate them to become critical consumers of information.

Finally, there is one important way in which the anti-smoking campaign differs from counter-disinformation efforts. In the case of smoking, American corporations were selling cigarettes to turn a profit. Today, however, foreign actors are deploying misleading content to actively undermine our democracy. For this reason, the FBI & other U.S. intel agencies should work closely with DHS, the State Dept, the Director of National Intelligence, & social media companies to develop a rapid response plan whenever suspicious activity is detected.

Only a whole-of-society approach — one that engages government, private companies & civil society alike — can effectively combat & build resilience to disinformation. Ahead of the midterm elections, Congress should hold Trump administration officials accountable to the promises they made to the American people this week.


What made this campaign so successful? First, the government used its regulatory powers. Much like Big Tobacco in the 1950s

So Big Government is the solution to all problems? The tobacco companies want to sell a product to me that isn’t good for my health. The government wants to steal my money and give me nothing in return.

Government makes more money of tobacco than it ever has before. They don’t want smoking to stop at all. They want to ‘regulate’ it which means make lots of money off of it.


I do not share your skepticism of everything done by government. In particular, the anti-smoking campaign has no evidence of duplicity, except possibly for the continuation of some (vastly reduced) tobacco crop insurance subsidies. But that is hardly a sign that the government wants to secretly encourage smoking. Much of the campaign is driven by local programs, funded locally - not the federal government. There is zero evidence that my state, for example, is anything other than sincere in its attempt to reduce smoking, especially among children. I hate to see the good work of honest public servants so maligned.


Oh there is plenty of evidence of duplicity. One is the government sued the tobacco companies for lost revenue due to smoking deaths, despite the taxes they collect from tobacco. But they won’t admit the evidence that smoking reduces Social Security payouts through early deaths. The government just wants to milk tobacco companies. There is plenty of other evidence that ‘public servants’ serve their own interests only.


Many people see the antismoking campaign as Big Government trampling the First Amendment. Everyone knew beforehand smoking was dangerous.


You still have nothing but your unfounded skepticism. You can imagine all sorts of nefarious motives, but your imagination does not amount to evidence. It is just the telling of suggestive facts. Sure, they collect taxes from tobacco. That is part of the campaign, like all “sin taxes” to make the undesired behavior less attractive when for practical reasons it cannot be banned entirely. We tried that with prohibition and that did not work out so well! So what if early death reduces SS payouts. That does not prove the government wants people to die! But as I said, you can hypothesize anything you want. But that does not mean your hypothesis is reasonable, much less provable.


No, they did not. That is why big tobacco worked so hard to delay the reporting of the truth.


Warning labels had been on cigarettes since the 60s.


What proves governments want people to die is when they send them off to war as cannon fodder. I thought it was pretty well understood that man in his fallen nature can be dangerous. I’m not aware of any theory of human behavior that stipulates that when those same men get put in positions of absolute power with no accountability they magically become super human.


I think you need a Snickers.


If you picked a reasonably moderate position, it might be easier to support it. But your argument is getting more and more general. Which means you are claiming more and more, and thus your argument is harder and harder to support. It has now gone so far off the rails that no one would consider it a serious argument worthy of a rebuttal.


What exactly is my argument? It was simply that I don’t trust government. I don’t think government has my best interest in mind. I don’t look to the government for moral, historical, or scientific truth. How is that an extreme or unreasonable argument?


Cigarettes were called coffin nails long before that. And the government handed out these coffin nails to its soldiers.

The funny thing is cigarettes got popular as a public health movement. They thought tuberculosis was being spread by tobacco spit. Tobacco used to be primarily consumed as chew and snuff. And people used to just spit anywhere and everywhere. So there was a movement to get people to switch to cigarettes, which are much, much worse for your health. I don’t know that the state was involved since it hadn’t yet found its full glory in controlling every aspect of or lives, but they may have.

Always beware of experts.


Sure…after the US Surgeon General’s office releases its report on smoking…


Always trust experts over some guy on the internet.


I don’t care if you believe me. I know enough of history and personal experience to know the truth.


Yes, there was plenty evidence of duplicity - on the part of tobacco companies. Evidently, it is just fine with you for corporations to lie to the American people about their product being addictive. How many more people would have died if the government had not taken steps to to find out the truth on behalf of the American people?

Maybe it is just fine with you if a hostile, foreign government covertly promotes lies and disinformation. Count me as one that expects my government to take steps to protect the American people from the weaponization of lies and disinformation - just as it took steps to protect the American people from the corporate lies of the tobacco industry.

“We’re a nicotine delivery business.” That’s what Jeffrey Wigand, former director of research for Brown & Williamson, the country’s third largest tobacco company at the time, told Mike Wallace in 1995. It was an explosive statement from a high-ranking tobacco insider…

“The story itself was one of the most – probably the most important story that was ever reported by 60 Minutes,” recalls 60 Minutes Executive Producer Jeff Fager, who was then executive producer of the CBS Evening News…

Wigand said his company had long known it was selling an addictive product, despite its CEO’s testimony before Congress to the contrary. Originally hired to help Brown & Williamson develop a safer cigarette, Wigand said he was ultimately fired after clashing with his bosses.

"This was a watershed moment in understanding what cigarette smoke does and the company’s complicity in trying to get people addicted," says Fager.


Whoa, where do you get that I think it is fine for corporations to lie? I don’t think that. I also think it is ridiculous that anyone thought cigarettes weren’t addictive. You didn’t need a tobacco executive to tell you that.

As for lying in testimony to Congress that happens all the time. Either the congressman or the witness lie. Very often the witness is a government bureaucrat, like Comey or Clapper. Mostly nothing comes of it. The tobacco executives didn’t violate the integrity of Congress because it has none.


I’m sorry, but this weak collection of denials and justifications doesn’t warrant a response. And we have nothing further to discuss,

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit