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New PHAI study in AJPH focuses on the tobacco industry’s use of personal responsibility rhetoric, how its legal defense strategies inform its public relations messaging

March 27th, 2015

According to a newly published study co-authored by Lissy Friedman, Daniel Givelber, Mark Gottlieb and Richard Daynard of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law and Andrew Cheyne of Berkeley Media Studies Group, the tobacco industry honed and developed a legal strategy that blamed its customers for their smoking-related injuries, and applied this effective and persuasive personal responsibility frame to its public relations messages. The article is entitled “Tobacco Industry Use of Personal Responsibility Rhetoric in Public Relations and Litigation: Disguising Freedom to Blame as Freedom of Choice.”

Friedman and her co-authors examined the tobacco industry’s use of personal responsibility arguments to avoid its own responsibility for the harm its products cause. In examining the specific language and rhetoric Big Tobacco employs, the study found that the industry rarely uses the phrase “personal responsibility” explicitly, but rather the expression “freedom of choice.” When the industry uses the term “freedom of choice” in the context of litigation, it means that those who choose to smoke are solely to blame for their injuries. When the phrase is used in the industry’s public relations messages, it grounds its meaning in the concept of liberty and the right to smoke. The study examines and illustrates how courtroom “blame rhetoric” has influenced the tobacco industry’s larger public relations message to shift responsibility away from the tobacco companies and onto their customers.

Understanding the rhetoric and framing that the tobacco industry employs is essential to combating this tactic, and can be applied to other industries that act as disease vectors. Industries who manufacture and sell products that pose a threat to public health, such as junk food, sugar-sweetened beverages, alcohol, dirty energy and electronic gambling machines, have adopted Big Tobacco’s well-developed strategy for staving off regulation, litigation liability, and social denormalization and stigmatization. The lessons learned from studying the tobacco industry’s use of personal responsibility rhetoric can contribute to developing a broader movement to use public health advocacy and interventions to change corporate malfeasance and behavior that threatens the public’s health.

Citation:  Lissy C. Friedman, Andrew Cheyne, Daniel Givelber, Mark A. Gottlieb, and Richard A. Daynard. Tobacco Industry Use of Personal Responsibility Rhetoric in Public Relations and Litigation: Disguising Freedom to Blame as Freedom of Choice. American Journal of Public Health: February 2015, Vol. 105, No. 2, pp. 250-260.
doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2014.302226

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