#FinishIT campaign harnesses peer pressure to eliminate teen smoking

Few commodities can attest to holding the sort of cultural cachet that cigarettes do. Once heralded as among the most definitively “cool” status symbols in Western media and print, smoking’s ultimate descent is interesting in terms of being a public health issue in conflict with conventions of fashion and image. The latest efforts to prevent smoking altogether is Truth, a campaign targeted specifically at young people in an attempt to cut back on teen smoking. The campaign boasts huge progress, claiming that this last year only 9 percent of teens smoked, as opposed to 23 percent 14 years ago. Using the mantra #FinishIT, the goal is to eliminate teen smoking altogether.

Sleek and colorful, Truth’s Web site offers information about the history of Big Tobacco, including methods of advertising or production layered with facts about the dangers of tobacco for health. Periodically updated, this table of numbered facts occupy most of the screen in little tan boxes, offering search functions such as death, race and women. A tab labeled “About truth” is presumably the movement’s mission statement: “We are here to empower, not to judge.” At the top is a series of other mottos and statistics regarding the fight against teen smoking, punctuated by young, stylish people partying, running or simply looking snappy and cool.

The irony of this movement comes from the method of fighting Big Tobacco. The most popular campaigns to fight smoking have urged teens not to give into peer pressure and ignore those who would try and make smoking appear stylish or necessary as a status symbol. While the merit of this rhetoric is debatable, the sentiment is generally positive, encouraging young people to think and act as individuals.

The #FinishIT movement utilizes the same tactic, but instead of demonizing peer pressure, it actively uses it as a tool to fight teen smoking. While stating that judgment is not the goal of the cause, much of the information on the Web site and the things readers are encouraged to do actively serve the goal of ostracizing smokers. One example is the poll function, with user feedback, which says that “almost 80% of us didn’t kiss a smoker last month. We’ll pucker up to that.” While the fight against teen smoking is a noble cause, statements like this simply serve to antagonize smokers while depicting them as less worthy human beings.

In a social media move similar to that of the recent “It’s On Us” movement at St. Olaf, proponents of the anti-smoking cause are encouraged to superimpose an orange X design over their social media profile pictures to show solidarity in the cause. While including on the website that the cause “loves smokers” and that the movement is not about “leaving them out,” this activity seems to fairly clearly reinforce exclusivity among participants while emphasizing peer pressure. If this sort of activity can gain any sort of traction online, the pressure to undergo such a simple task to change your online persona grows and grows. Although not intrinsically bad, this tactic is manipulative and asks individuals to support the cause simply because others already do, rather for its own merit.

If left unchecked, tactics for good can begin to use methods that work against their causes. In the case of this campaign and those like it, it is valuable to take a step back and look at not only the message being spread but the ways in which it is delivered to the people. It is a great victory that teen smoking is on the decline and I will celebrate the day it drops to zero, but until then, it is important to remember that smoking is the issue, and vilifying smokers isn’t a positive solution.

Conlan Campbell ’18 campbe1@stolaf.edu is from Burnsville, Minn. His major is undeclared.