Zach Groff
Published on
December 5, 2016

Can Meat Eating Be the Next Cigarette? Four Surprising Facts.

By Zach Groff

How do we shut down an industry that successfully peddles death to billions of people? For animal rights activists, the antitobacco movement might be a good place to look. Harvard Professor Allan M. Brandt’s Pulitzer Prize finalist book The Cigarette Century chronicles how, for much of the twentieth century, cigarettes were a uniquely seductive product that defined everything from sex to platonic friendship to military camaraderie. Then, cigarettes had a fall from grace, becoming a product nearly universally frowned upon, even by smokers themselves - and cigarette sales fell with that.

Brandt’s gripping narrative has lessons on every page for animal rights activists. The basic gist of the narrative we all know - that cigarettes rose in favor and became ubiquitous by the mid 20th century before falling out of favor - is true, but the reasons for it and the lessons within it might surprise you. Here are four things animal advocates can learn from the history of cigarettes.

 The  Liberation Pledge : a strategy for animal rights activists.
The Liberation Pledge : a strategy for animal rights activists.

1. The moralization and stigmatization of smoking by nonsmokers was key to tobacco’s fall. In Brandt’s appraisal, a key turning point in the antitobacco movement was when evidence started coming out that secondhand smoke caused cancer. Suddenly, what was previously a personal choice became one that had effects on others and nonsmokers started chastising smokers more openly, forming “Nonsmokers’ Rights” groups, and campaigning to discourage and banish smoking in public spaces. Animal rights activists taking the increasingly popular Liberation Pledge have a chance to have a similar effect on violence against animals.

2. Tobacco companies brilliantly exploited social norms, peer influence, and institutions rather than targeting individual behavior directly. Tobacco companies wrote the book on marketing and avoiding public scrutiny for every modern industry, from fossil fuels to entertainment. The “father of public relations” and inventor of the press release, Edward Bernays, cut his teeth working for tobacco companies and brilliantly demonstrated how social appeals - that cigarettes were cool, rebellious, even feminist - were far more effective than focusing on cigarette quality alone. The tobacco companies focused their efforts on getting cigarettes to be accepted in and central to major social institutions like movies and changing social norms through mass displays of smoking (even in public protests). To the extent animal advocates engage in advertising and public relations, there might be a few lessons to learn from the bad guys here.

 Cigarette companies portrayed smoking as a rebellious, feminist act.
Cigarette companies portrayed smoking as a rebellious, feminist act.

It’s worth noting that despite the brilliant strategy and ample funding of tobacco companies, they had a remarkable fall from grace - a sign that no matter how brilliant your strategy, the content of your ideas matters, which is a hopeful sign for animal advocates.

3. Tobacco companies have used - and other industries continue to use - global trade to spread death abroad, permanently. As the sky started falling for cigarette companies in the 1970s and 80s, Big Tobacco looked abroad to sell cigarettes. The fall of the Soviet Union and trade agreements in the 1990s created a big market. Unlike many earlier trade agreements that had the effect of reducing tariffs, modern trade agreements all too often focus on preempting corporate regulation, preventing developing countries from fighting businesses like tobacco companies and increasing such companies’ sales.

 Cigarette companies aggressively use trade to fight regulation.
Cigarette companies aggressively use trade to fight regulation.

The negotiators of the Trans-Pacific Partnership tacitly admitted this by exempting regulations on cigarettes and recognizing that countries should be able to fight tobacco companies. For industries still in significant political favor, like animal agriculture, trade agreements offer a big boon.

4. Industry self-regulation can be a license to kill. When word started getting out that cigarettes were harmful to health, tobacco companies brilliantly avoided a precipitous downfall by creating frameworks to regulate themselves and getting government buy in for moderate reforms that preempted bolder regulations that the Surgeon General and others would have supported. The first law passed by U.S. Congress to label cigarettes was actually supported by tobacco companies as a way to preempt stronger labels. Similarly, tobacco companies successfully stalled congressional action against cigarette ads by agreeing to a voluntary “Cigarette Advertising Code” that went unenforced. Similar findings of non-enforcement of animal welfare regulations should be a bright red warning sign.


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