Government Campaign Targeting Hipsters’ Smoking Faces Criticism

By May Wilkerson 04/06/15

Spearheaded by Real World alum Pamela Ling, the Commune mixes progressive politics with anti-smoking messages.

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Smoking may be going out of vogue, but many young people are still lighting up. The federal government has spent millions of dollars in the past few years on an anti-smoking campaign targeted at hipsters, which it defines as young adults who are “focused on the alternative music scene, local artists and designers, and eclectic self expression.” The project includes ads recommending alternatives to tobacco use such as “styling your sweet mustache” and listening to music “no one else has heard of.”

The project is run by a former MTV Real World cast member, Pamela Ling, now a medical professor at the University of California San Francisco. She has created a “social brand” called the Commune which puts on smoke-free concerts, pays local artists to create anti-smoking merchandise, and encourages people to document their quitting smoking journeys on blogs. The campaign has been awarded more than $5 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) since 2011, with the money funding social events, ads, social media posters, and t-shirts.

Some of the campaign messaging aligns the anti-smoking movement with progressive politics, criticizing “neoconservative political candidates” for taking donations from Big Tobacco. The Commune’s website points a finger at Big Tobacco for contributing to “things like world hunger, deforestation and neoconservative policies.”

According to Ling, political concerns are more likely to discourage hipsters from lighting up than concerns about health. “Saying ‘Smoking is bad for you’ isn’t relevant to them,” she said in a 2010 article on the UCSF website. “But they do care about self expression and social justice.”

But some have criticized the campaign’s angle, calling it hypocritical. A 2004 NIH study found that both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have accepted contributions from the tobacco industry.

This weekend, the NIH defended their messaging, claiming that research shows this approach will “improve approaches to messaging targeted to young adults.”

“This specific project addresses the prevention of tobacco-related diseases by developing a social marketing intervention to block tobacco industry marketing to young adults attending bars and nightclubs,” NIH said. “The project will evaluate the effects of the intervention as delivered to young adults in four cities compared to young adults with a similar smoking prevalence in four comparison communities.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.