Aser García Rada: Ex-smokers are unstoppable

Aser Garcia RadaFor the first time a large European awareness campaign to help smokers quit focuses on the positive aspects of doing so, rather than highlighting cancer, heart disease, or death. We are so used to dreadful messages, such as the striking images already seen on cigarette packages in many countries worldwide, that this new proposal from the European Commission feels like the breath of fresh air that smokers need.

That is how I felt on 14 September during a presentation in Brussels of the second phase of ex-smokers are unstoppable, the campaign released by the European Commission on 16 June. It was really moving to see the cheerful pictures and quotes of the 27 volunteer ex-smokers, one from each member state of the EU.
“Ex-smokers are better mums,” said Ekaterina, from Malta, who wants to be a good role model for her daughter. Ignacio, from Spain, wants to “enjoy life more,” so he quit four years ago because “ex-smokers live longer.” For Ghislain from France, “ex-smokers never stop,” something he knows well because he resumed sport three years ago, four years after quitting, and this year he is going to participate in an ultratriathlon in the US.

And it is also clear that positive portrayals of ex-smokers make better films, as shown by Pregnant and Marathon, the two emotive television advertisements released for the campaign, in which the main characters are real ex-smokers themselves. Many other touching personal testimonies can be found by doing a quick search on YouTube.
The campaign, which will last for three years, also involves national authorities, health associations, NGOs, and, for the first time, provides practical help on how to make smoking a thing of the past. The so called iCoach is a free online interactive tool available in all EU languages designed to support those trying to quit. It analyses each person’s habits and provides tailored advice on a daily basis. According to John Dalli, European commissioner for health and consumer policy, who presented the second phase, 20 000 people have already used it, 30% of them successfully.

The commission decided that a new approach was necessary, not only because a positive message is encouraging and may work better, especially in the context of difficult economic times for many Europeans, but also because it may compensate for the predictable and progressive desensitisation to negative messages, which are usually used in national awareness campaigns.

According to Paola Testori, the director general of the European Commission’s Directorate for Health and Consumers, who was at the presentation, her department is also working on a proposal, expected to be ready in 2012, for introducing plain packaging and mandatory labelling of all tobacco additives, not only those technologically needed but also those added to increase addiction.

It all seems good news for the one third of Europeans still smoking, and for the other two thirds who sometimes suffer from others’ toxic habits. But Big Tobacco may not be so pleased, as in recent years the companies have spent much time suing different countries for introducing such measures, as they have just done with Australia and the US.

And it is still early days with the EU. Though Testori said not to be afraid, she recognised that tobacco companies are “the strongest lobby” she has ever seen and pointed out that they clearly tried to bias the recent public consultation that the commission launched on these issues by flooding them with answers.

Aser García Rada is a paediatrician at the Hospital Infantil Universitario Niño Jesús in Madrid, Spain, and a freelance journalist.