Don’t Burn It, Unless It’s Not Yours-Jennica Allen
In a few neighborhoods in the city of Boston, there are billboards featuring
unusual equations. These equations include three packages of tip cigars times 52 is
equal to a laptop, and a blunt cigar times 365 equals an iPad. These billboards are part
of the Don’t Burn It campaign and are in very strategic locations around the city. These
locations are generally in areas with large minority populations. These include South
Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury.
Boston Public Health Commission created this campaign to alert area youth to
the dangers of tobacco, and the deception of the tobacco industry. The main message of
the billboards is that with the money youth spend on flavored tobacco products, such as
blunt cigars and tip cigars, they could instead buy something more appealing and longer
lasting, such as sneakers or a video game console. The message is It’s your money.
Don’t burn it.
There are many things this campaign does very well. Until the advent of the
Truth Campaign era, traditional anti-tobacco work focused on the behavior of the
individual and ignored the behavior of Big Tobacco. The Don’t Burn It campaign’s
website informs visitors “Big Tobacco is targeting YOU” (1). Psychological
Reactance Theory explains that “when people this that a freedom is threatened they
experience reactance, a motivational state aimed at restoring the threatened freedom”
(2,3). This is particularly applicable among youth, so by convincing them that the
tobacco industry is jeopardizing their freedoms, the Don’t Burn It campaign aims to
encourage rebellion in the form of choosing not to smoke.
The Don’t Burn It campaign also works in conjunction with the 84 campaign of
Massachusetts, a campaign that seeks to increase the visibility of the 84 percent of
Massachusetts youth who are tobacco free. It is important to emphasize that tobacco
use is not as widespread as youth may think.
Finally, the Don’t Burn It campaign utilizes many avenues to spread its message.
These include the aforementioned billboards as well as commercials and print materials.
Don’t Burn It conveys a very important message to youth, particularly racial and
ethnic minorities, in the city of Boston. While there are many aspects to this campaign
that make it a unique approach to an old problem, there are a few things the designers
should consider. With these considerations come a few entry points at which the
creators can begin to make Don’t Burn It the most effective intervention possible.
Critique 1-Consider the Source
The general premise of the Don’t Burn It campaign is that “it’s lame to waste your
money on rollies and other flavored tobacco products” (1). To convey this idea, the
campaign uses materials, billboards, commercials, and other print materials to indicate
that the money spent on daily or weekly tobacco purchases, could instead be used to buy
a laptop, an iPad, fashionable sneakers, or a video game console.
It is likely that these equations are mathematically sound. Multiplying the cost of
a package of blunt cigars by 365 will probably generate an amount of money large
enough to purchase an iPad.
However, one important concept that weakens this message is that of social
sources. That is to say that many tobacco users, particularly youth, do not get their
tobacco by purchasing it in stores, i.e. commercial sources. Social sources are
particularly popular among youth under the age of 18 (4) This is because many states
enforce stringent restrictions on underage purchasing of tobacco products in an attempt
to reduce access. Research suggests that access focused interventions are unsuccessful
because there is “relative rarity of exclusive reliance on commercial sources for
obtaining either cigarettes or alcohol, ranging from less than one to nine percent of
users depending on substance and grade in school” (4).
Research also shows that younger smokers consider tobacco easy to obtain
regardless of federal restrictions. School age children rate tobacco among the easiest
substances to obtain via multiple social sources (4,5).
Only once use becomes more regular do tobacco sources shift from social to
commercial, and at this point, a message about how money can be better spent may be
too late (4,6).
Even youth who obtain tobacco from social sources do not get it for free. They
often pay friends who otherwise acquire the tobacco products. Youth obtain the tobacco
at reduced prices, rendering the Don’t Burn It campaign’s equations a bit skewed.
DiFranza and Coleman conducted a study in ten Massachusetts communities
with merchant compliance rates of at least 90 percent. The study found that even in the
face of such overwhelming restrictions, youth managed to obtain tobacco. New smokers
got tobacco products from friends and even parents (7).
Some youth shoplift tobacco from merchants with young or otherwise
unsuspecting clerks. To combat this, some anti youth smoking advocates suggest
raising the minimum age for purchasing as well as selling tobacco to 21 (7,8). Research
on the effect of supply and demand on youth smoking shows that access interventions
are generally ineffective, so laws regarding minimum age may not be successful.
If youth obtain their tobacco from non-commercial sources for little to no money,
it is unlikely that the Don’t Burn It campaign message will strike a chord with them.
Critique 2-Number Crunching
Beyond the surface message of the Don’t Burn It campaign, the creators present
website visitors with alarming statistics about the harmful effects of tobacco use. These
statistics include that one third of youth smokers will eventually die from tobacco
related disease and smoking causes nearly 8,000 deaths each year in Massachusetts (1).
Public Health campaigns often bombard the target audience with statistics. They
do this in order to shock the target into changing the risky behavior. This is ineffective
particularly regarding tobacco because smokers are usually fully aware of the health
risks related with smoking and even overestimate the negative health consequences.
Humans are subject to “unrealistic optimism”, as they tend to underestimate the
probability that bad things will happen to them (9). The theory that explains this is
Optimistic Bias. This bias operates on a systematic level and under its influence,
people fail to assign the same risk to themselves as they assign to others for the same
The Law of Small Numbers explains that humans have a distorted view of
probability and are not good at judging probability and risk. This is certainly applicable
in the realm of public health, particularly with respect to tobacco interventions.
The statistics regarding the harmful effects of tobacco are staggering, with
exposure linked to lung cancer, heart disease and other dangerous outcomes. However,
confronting smokers with these numbers usually invites a reply about a distant relative
who smoked a pack a day for 70 years and lived to be more than 80 years old. This is
because people grasp on to one example that operates counter to what public health
messages tell them and use this case to discard the statistics.
The highest levels of Optimistic Bias occur in adolescents, making it particularly
relevant to the Don’t Burn It campaign. People do not necessarily correctly interpret
statistics, and even if they do, the numbers are not enough. People assume they are
different from the masses.
This is applicable to the Don’t Burn It message because the youth are likely to
assume that they are part of the two-thirds of youth smokers who do not die from
tobacco related disease. In a state of more than six and a half million (10), youth
smokers will assume that they are safe from the tobacco reaper that claims 8,000
Massachusetts lives annually.
Optimistic Bias indicates that people are biologically irrational due to innate
biases. People, especially youth, fail to make emotional individual connections to
statistics. Therefore, the Don’t Burn It campaign and Public Health in general should
reconsider approaches to interventions that aim to change behavior.
Critique 3-First Things First
It is clear from the public materials of the Don’t Burn It campaign that the
creators made some assumptions about the priorities of youth smokers. The billboards
show that the designers assume that those currently smoking flavored tobacco products
value certain material goods. These include the aforementioned sneakers, laptops,
video game consoles, and iPad tablets. It is very plausible that the target audience finds
these things valuable. For this reason, the Don’t Burn It campaign places its materials
in areas where these worlds-that of young users of flavored tobacco and those who value
goods such as video game consoles and sneakers-collide, i.e. urban neighborhoods with
high populations of ethnic minorities.
However, these communities are often plagued with issues inherent in inner city
living. Safety, education, and job opportunities are often concerns of residents in urban
settings. Thus, these often take precedent over the desire for worldly possessions.
This method of prioritizing is further elucidated by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Abraham Maslow created a paradigm regarding people’s behavioral motivation. This
paradigm includes a pyramid of needs with the most basic of needs serving as the base.
There are eight levels to the pyramid. The bottom , most basic level is Physiological
Needs which include food, water, and similar sustainability structures. The next level is
Safety Needs and includes security. The next level is Belongingness and Love Needs
which refer to the need to be affiliated with and accepted by others. The fourth level is
Esteem Needs, the need to achieve and be recognized as competent. The next level is
the Need to Know and Understand which operates on a cognitive level regarding the
need to know and explore. The next level is Aesthetic Needs referring to the need for
order and beauty. The seventh level is Self-Actualization which refers to the need to
achieve fulfillment through reaching one’s potential. The final level, and point of the
pyramid is Transcendence which encompasses the needs of humans to achieve
fulfillment beyond oneself and help others to reach their potential as well (11).
The Public Health field acknowledges that health tends to fall among the needs
higher along the pyramid. This makes health difficult to sell in communities that lack
stability in basic needs, and in tobacco related interventions, the main selling point is
almost always health. In the case of the Don’t Burn It campaign, the creators are selling
the idea of material goods. These goods are supposed to appeal to youth smokers on a
visceral level, that is, they should find themselves immediately drawn to the
attractiveness of a new laptop or pair of sneakers. Something like a new pair of sneakers
can likely only fulfill aesthetic needs, the sixth level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
If members of the target communities find what Maslow refers to as deficiencies
in their basic needs, such as stable housing and security, a public health message selling
aesthetic needs will simply fail to resonate. Maslow explains that people cannot begin to
fulfill higher order needs until the most basic needs are met.
There are three aspects of the Don’t Burn It campaign that contribute to its
failure to reach its full potential as a Public Health intervention. There are however,
many facets that render the campaign both unique and effective. These include the
highlighting of Bog Tobacco’s deceptive ways and the affiliation with the 84 campaign of
Massachusetts. Another important aspect of Don’t Burn It is that of ownership.
Ownership can lead to greater success in behavior change. Don’t Burn It encourages
ownership through a “Tobacco-Free Pledge” that youth can sign. Youth are more likely
to commit to remaining tobacco-free if they believe they are accountable for their
Don’t Burn It has the makings of a truly effective, valuable intervention
campaign. If the creators address the three sources of critique mentioned above, the
movement can be the first step in changing the way the Public Health field interacts
with its target audiences.
In order to address the gap in the consideration of tobacco sources, the Don’t
Burn It campaign can take an approach that will broaden its scope. Once the creators of
the intervention resolve to take into account the prevalence of social sources of tobacco,
they will find that they have a new, larger audience for their message.
Commercial sources are independent in nature and presuppose that the smoker
is operating in a vacuum, unaffected by outside forces. Research shows that social
sources are far more widespread than the Don’t Burn It campaign indicates. By
considering and addressing these sources, the campaign should become even more far-
reaching and effective.
The first step is to aim the message at more than one person at a time. Right
now, the message is “It’s your money. Don’t burn it”. If the message instead becomes
something more like “Don’t spread the wealth” or “Not sharing is caring”, the campaign
can address entire social groups at one time.
Billboards that explain the fast spreading nature of harm from tobacco exposure
from one individual to another may begin to make strides in getting at the underlying
issues of access to tobacco for youth.
Making it socially unacceptable to share tobacco products will alter social norms.
Social norms can be the most influential forces in any public health issue specifically
tied to harmful behavior. Changing these norms is the most effective way to modify
Social sources of tobacco for youth often go underexplored and unacknowledged.
Bringing this concept to light is the first step toward getting it on the public agenda. The
framing of an issue determines whether and how the public chooses to address it. High
visibility among the general public of the prevalence of social sources of tobacco can
serve to affect public opinion. If providing youth with tobacco products is no longer
acceptable, simply by virtue of being recognized, behaviors will begin to change.
Affecting groups of individuals is much more feasible than affecting a single
individual. This is also a more effective means of creating changes in behavior.
Considering the impact of framing, group behavior, and social norms, the Don’t
Burn It campaign should add an element to their message that accounts for social
sources of tobacco. This may include billboards that expose the vectors of transmission
tied to tobacco and tobacco related disease, and how the spread is only expedited when
tobacco is shared within social networks.
Perhaps the most difficult change to make to an existing public health
intervention involves moving away from statistics. Practitioners often work in
conjunction with epidemiologists and biostatisticians and arm themselves with sound
statistics and other mathematic figures in order to go to battle against harmful health
The assumption is that if people only knew just how bad their behavior is for
them, and what kind of harm it is causing, they would no longer participate in such risk
taking. This is a dangerous assumption as it leads to action that seeks to attack a
knowledge gap that may not exist.
This problem is particularly applicable to the Don’t Burn It campaign because
research indicates that with respect to tobacco, those participating in harmful behavior
are fully aware of the associated risks. No quantity of disquieting statistics will alone
change risky behaviors.
People also often misunderstand or utterly disregard statistics that attempt to
confront them with their own mortality. Instead, they hold on to a single experience
that is for them influential, swaying, and able to convince them that they are not as
vulnerable as statistics may suggest.
The best way to combat this human tendency is to provide an equally compelling
individual story. Yul Brynner is a good example of the effects of this method of
conveying a public health message. Yul Brynner was an actor best known for his
Academy Award winning role in the 1956 film The King and I. Brynner smoked
frequently and died of lung cancer in 1985. Prior to his death, he expressed desire to
create an anti-smoking commercial. The American Cancer Society released a
posthumous public service announcement in which Brynner pleads with the viewers to
never smoke. This public service announcement was a very effective tool for the anti-
tobacco movement because people connected to it on a personal, emotional level.
The Don’t Burn It campaign can learn from this and create a compelling message
that is relevant to its target audience. This will likely involve a subject to whom the
audience can relate.
Since the message of the campaign is that there must be a tradeoff between
tobacco and other things, the story should feature a young person who had to face the
same decision and suffered the consequences of choosing tobacco. The loss this young
person experienced may be financial or more abstract, like loss of trust of a family
member or friend. These are things that young people in most settings value, so a
believable, individual story of jeopardizing these precious entities, is likely to resonate.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs is a potentially very helpful framework for public
health interventions. Understanding how people prioritize various needs and how these
priorities dictate behavior can provide valid entry points for public health practitioners
to begin to affect change.
It is important to note that health generally qualifies as a higher order need and
therefore takes a back seat to other, more basic needs. Therefore, it is critical that in
intervening, public health practitioners sell something other than health to the target
audience. The intervention should sell something more in line with basic needs.
Perhaps the most important and effective thing that a public health campaign can
emphasize is freedom. As Psychological Reactance Theory explains, people resist
threats to their freedom and seek out ways to regain whatever freedom is lost. The
Don’t Burn It campaign in a way does attempt to alert its audience to threats to their
freedom by uncovering some deceptive practices of Big Tobacco. The campaign seeks to
get the audience to regain this freedom and rebel by never beginning to smoke.
There are other ways in which the Don’t Burn It campaign can convey its message
using the foundation of base level needs.
The campaign focuses largely in urban neighborhoods in Boston with large
numbers of racial and ethnic minorities. The social determinants of health show that
neighborhoods like these are disproportionately affected by lower socioeconomic status,
higher unemployment rates, and weaker infrastructure leading to less safety and
Many of the things that are deficient in the inner city are basic foundational
needs according to Maslow. This provides an important opportunity for the Don’t Burn
If the campaign can manage to sell security as the opponent of tobacco products
for youth, it will be significantly more effective. If the campaign’s creators instead
equate rejecting daily and weekly purchases and use of tobacco products with job
opportunities and increased income, they might find that the campaign’s efficacy
improves as the message reverberates with larger numbers of youth throughout the city
Don’t Burn It is in many ways a public health campaign that takes a unique
approach to changing behavior. The intervention employs seldom used methods to
convey an important message to youth regarding tobacco use. The campaign uses
various avenues to express ways in which tobacco can cause harm.
There are ways however to improve the Don’t Burn It campaign. Delivering a
message that goes directly for social norms will undoubtedly be effective in exposing the
prevalence of social sources of tobacco for youth.
Sharing a compelling story that resonates individually and emotionally with the
youth in the target audience will likely prove more successful in modifying behavior.
Selling basic needs as the yield for rejecting tobacco will create an intervention to
which a large segment of the target audience can relate.
These three simple additions to the Don’t Burn It campaign may return
exponential improvements, affecting youth for generations to come.
1. Boston Public Health Commission. Don’t Burn It. Boston, MA:2011. http://www.dontburnit.org/
2. Silvia, Paul J. Deflecting Reactance: The Role of Similarity in Increasing Compliance and Reducing Resistance. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 2005; 27(3): 277-284.
3. Brehm, J.W., and Cole, A. Effect of a favor which reduces freedom. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1966, 3:420-426.
4. Harrison, Patricia A. et al. The Relative Importance of Social Versus Commercial Sources In Youth Access to Tobacco, Alcohol, and Other Drugs. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2000; 31:39-48.
5. Forster, JL, et al. Perceived and measured availability of tobacco to youth in fourteen Minnesota communities: The TPOP study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 1997; 13:167-74.
6. Wagenaar, AC, et al. Where and how adolescents obtain alcoholic beverages. Public Health Rep 1993; 57:459-63.
7. DiFranza, Joseph R., and Coleman, Mardia. Sources of tobacco for youths in communities with strong enforcement of youth access laws. Tobacco Control 2001; 10:323-328.
8. DiFranza, JR, et al. Is the standard compliance check protocol a valid measure of the availability of tobacco to underage smokers? American Journal of Public Health 2001.
9. Weinstein, Neil D. Unrealistic Optimism About Future Life Events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1980; 39(5):806-820.
10. U.S. Census Bureau. Massachusetts QuickFacts. 13 Oct 2011. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/25000.html
11. Huitt, W. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Educational Psychology Interactive 2007.