Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health

An intelligent and targeted global counter-marketing campaign for tobacco products

Public health

We will disseminate evidence-based information on health hazards of tobacco products globally using targeted communications through conventional and social media.

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Lead Organization

Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health

Boston, Massachusetts, United States


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To learn more about – or provide significant funding to – this project, please contact Lever for Change.

Project Summary

The tobacco industry heavily markets tobacco products including combusted cigarettes globally. More recently, use of electronic cigarettes has become an urgent challenge in high-income countries. We will disseminate targeted messages to counterbalance the misinformation about tobacco products disseminated by the industry. Our experts have proven the effectiveness of theory-driven messages in controlled trials. We will disseminate these messages globally using conventional communication methods and social media. We will first focus on refining messages for various subgroups (e.g. socially marginalized populations) and developing a detailed dissemination strategy. We will then implement, monitor and evaluate our counter-marketing campaign in nine countries. Finally, we will scale-up the campaign globally by translating and acculturating our messages to 45 common languages that cover 74% of the world population. We will draw from our expertise in global health and health communication and through collaboration with key partners in public relations, advertising and social media.

Problem Statement

The tobacco industry has promulgated products that caused 100 million deaths globally in the twentieth century, and continue to cause an estimated to 6.4 million deaths each year, including hundreds of thousands of nonsmokers exposed to second hand smoke. Most of the tobacco-related deaths will occur in low- and middle-income countries. Although the enforcement of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) has helped curb the epidemic in high-income countries, the tobacco industry has obstructed its implementation in low-and-middle-income countries by applying financial and political pressure on governments, and is rapidly expanding in emerging economies. With the advent of vaping products, including e-cigarettes, tobacco manufacturers are attempting to reach new markets, especially youth. E-cigarettes are being heavily marketed to the youth in high-income countries replicating the same advertising techniques originally used for cigarettes. The tobacco industry is spending millions to recruit new users and retain current ones using conventional advertising and social media to propagate the use of its products, including combusted cigarettes and non-combusted e-cigarettes, among vulnerable populations such as youth and those of low socioeconomic position. The current efforts to counter-balance the industry’s misinformation campaigns are sparse in scope and limited in effectiveness as evidenced by the massive epidemic in low-and-middle-income countries [1] and the new challenge of vaping especially among youth in high-income countries [2]. For example, use of e-cigarettes among high-school students in the US has increased nine times in a few years and 40% of young users have never smoked a cigarette.[3]

Solution Overview

We propose to use the power of targeted communication and social media to counter misinformation campaigns run by the tobacco industry. We will use public health promotion messages delivered by actual users and chatbots programmed by artificial intelligence technology to propagate evidence-based information about smoking and smokeless tobacco use on the worldwide web. To develop and disseminate effective messages, we will use in-house expertise at the Center for Global Tobacco Control and the Center for Health Communication Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and complement that with expertise from our partners at the American Cancer Society and Burness communications. We will translate these messages into local languages for the nine countries in Phase II (focused dissemination) and into 45 of the most common languages in the world in Phase III (global dissemination). The campaign will aim at the potential consumers as defined by the tobacco industry and will produce messages in various formats (audio, brief videos and animations) to those at highest risk such as vulnerable youth and racial minorities, following the tobacco industries’ own market segmentation approaches. Of special importance is the youth population in each country, especially the economically and socially disadvantaged subgroups. We will develop a detailed dissemination strategy for each country in Phase II to optimize the reach and effectiveness of campaign messages. Finally, we will scale-up the campaign globally to cover 90 languages which collectively represent 74% of the world’s population.

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