On Sunday morning, I enjoyed a smoke-free brunch with friends. We didn’t choke down second-hand smoke with our waffles and no one even bothered to ask us if we wanted to sit in the smoking section. Because Sunday marked the 25th anniversary of the first comprehensive indoor smoking ban in the United States – including bars and restaurants.
Today, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, nearly half of all people living in the United States are now protected from secondhand smoke in public places. For those of us who strive to move good ideas forward, unpacking the dynamics behind such a large cultural shift can help make our current and future campaigns a success.
How’d it Happen?
Win #1: Starting in the 1970s, flight attendants began to raise the issue of secondhand smoke as a workplace safety issue and over the next decade, the scientific and medical community began to put compelling data to these claims. In 1986, the Surgeon General published a report that identified secondhand smoke a serious health problem. In a related study that showed flight attendants were exposed to levels of smoke similar to that of a person living with a pack-a-day smoker, the National Academy of Sciences called for a ban on all domestic flights. A year later, Congress passed a bill banning smoking on flights that were two hours or less, which it later expanded to include all domestic flights. In 1989, President H.W. Bush signed the bill into law, enacting the federal ban on smoking for all passenger flights in the United States that remains in effect today.
Win #2: Less than a year later, in June of 1990, San Luis Obispo Councilman Jerry Reiss proposed a city ordinance to ban smoking indoors, including bars and restaurants. Other cities had enacted partial smoking bans, but San Luis Obispo’s plan was the most comprehensive and the first to include bars and restaurants. At first Reiss had planned to exempt bars, but as he told The Los Angeles Times: “…the more I thought about it, the more I realized it made no sense . . . second-hand smoke is a health hazard whether it’s in a restaurant, a store, or a bar.” Although the smoking lobby and some business owners protested, the law passed by a vote of 4-1 and went into effect on August 2, 1990. What began in the Central Coast spread to the whole state of California by 1998; five years later, New York City enacted its ban and today, even in my home state of North Carolina – the heart of tobacco country – the majority of bars and restaurants are smoke-free.
So how did this issue gain enough traction to bring about such a major shift in public attitude – and subsequently, laws? Let’s look at five key components of what led to this success:
- The Right Frame: The movement to ban smoking was carefully framed as a workplace safety issue, which meant that people could easily understand and relate to the reasoning behind it. The flight attendants also got out in front by proactively framing the issue, meaning people thought about and acted on the issue the way they wanted them to – not the opposition. As you work on your issue, make sure the frame fits and will motivate your audience to action.
- Thinking Big: Superlatives – events that are the biggest, the first or most sweeping – get attention. This issue gained traction because there were many milestone angles for the media to cover. Use superlatives to show reporters why your story would be compelling to their audience – right now.
- Transformative Stories: Two years after the ban, The Los Angeles Times ran a story about current public opinion. The reporter talked to several residents about the law. “I was opposed to it,” a bar owner and former smoker told the reporter, “But if they ever allowed us to have smoking again, I wouldn’t allow it here. . . . I love the rule now.” Transformative stories get printed, so find the ones that will help your cause.
- Focus Pocus: For an interesting analysis of why the flight attendants were able to get the public on their side – and the tobacco lobby wasn’t – check out this case study published in the American Journal of Public Health. The tobacco lobby tried to situate the issue – and themselves – within overall context of indoor air quality. But the flight attendants were focused singularly on the negative health effects of smoking they faced everyday by simply doing their job was their sole focus – which also brought onboard other tobacco control groups. Keep focused and find your allies.
- Widen the Lens: Even though our 25th anniversary story starts with the 1990 law in San Luis Obispo, we know that isn’t really where the work began. Likely, even the flight attendants who took the cause public four years prior had others who moved and inspired them to action. It’s important to set near-term goals that are attainable, but keep in mind that long-term change is just that. Take the long-range view on success, and keep moving.
Happy campaigning – here’s a smoke-free brunch toast to your issue as the next big win!
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