Perspective: Tobacco messaging holds lessons for COVID-19 vaccine campaigns

April 29, 2022 – With 27% of U.S. adults still unvaccinated against COVID-19, public health campaigns to reach undecided individuals can model their strategies on successful messaging about tobacco, according to an article by experts at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The April 13, 2022 Perspective piece in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) was co-authored by Barry Bloom, Joan L. and Julius H. Jacobson Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, and Howard Koh, Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership.

For decades, the tobacco industry used misinformation to counter scientific reports showing that tobacco is a major preventable cause of cancer and death. Ultimately, reducing smoking rates required not only policies that restricted tobacco use and sales, but also widespread public information messaging from health professionals and smokers affected by tobacco use.

The authors noted that the current anti-vaccination movement, echoing tactics used by the tobacco industry, is “well supported by certain political figures, physicians, and media companies, and it sows doubt and distrust in science and government.”

However, they added, the public health field can borrow strategies from successful tobacco messaging campaigns. “There is an opportunity to mount a serious effort to provide accurate vaccination information using the same media channels on which people currently consume misinformation,” the authors wrote. “Just as the awareness that smokers endanger others marked a turning point for tobacco control, conveying the message that unvaccinated people endanger their family members, communities, and the health care system may be effective.”

Read the NEJM article: The Tobacco Wars’ Lessons for the Vaccination Wars

Listen to the accompanying NEJM audio interview: Do the Tobacco Wars Offer Any Lessons for the Vaccine Wars?