WHO on World No Tobacco Day: media is crucial for behaviour change

Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation

Truthful, independent and accountable journalism is crucial in the fight for public health, especially in the area of noncommunicable disease (NCD) risk factors such as tobacco use, harmful alcohol use, physical inactivity and unhealthy diets. This was the drive behind the training for journalists held by the WHO Country Office in the Russian Federation and the WHO European Office for NCDs on 30 May in Moscow as a forerunner for World No Tobacco Day.

It is widely known that tobacco, alcohol and nutrition are battlefields of contesting narratives and interests – and not all the stakeholders have public health as their main aim. This is where the expertise of WHO and the power of journalism can form a potent alliance, to expose myths and half-truths and provide people with an opportunity to make informed decisions about their lifestyles. As Carina Ferreira-Borges, Programme Manager for the Alcohol and Illicit Drugs Programme, put it, “Journalists have a key role to play in conveying public health messages. Awareness of vested interests’ tactics is essential for balanced reporting – and WHO can help the media with evidence-based information”.

Research shows that the media can significantly affect the way the public views health issues and can contribute to the behavioural changes our societies so desperately need, as Dr Melita Vujnovic, WHO Representative to the Russian Federation, emphasized. Exposing industry-funded research, unveiling the truth behind rumours and conventional wisdoms about unhealthy habits and providing the public with factual information about the risks of alcohol, tobacco, unhealthy diets and obesity – such as the little-known correlation between alcohol consumption and some types of cancer – would benefit everyone in the WHO European Region. Drinking rates in the Region are higher than anywhere else in the world and obesity and tobacco epidemics have reached and retain alarming scales.

In the lead up to World No Tobacco Day, 15 journalists from leading Russian Federation media outlets met with WHO experts on tobacco, alcohol, nutrition and physical activity as well an influential journalist and public health advocate from Ireland, Siobhán Creaton, Head of Public Affairs and Advocacy of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. They discussed the tactics the media can use to facilitate changes in the public perception of the risk factors for NCDs.

The health challenges the Russian Federation has been facing are similar to the vast majority of countries in the Region. NCDs are the leading cause of death and disability in the country. NCD control and prevention has become a strategic priority for the national authorities and the health system. As Dr Oleg Salagay, Deputy Minister of Health of the Russian Federation, highlighted at the workshop, although significant progress has been made in tackling NCDs and their risk factors, especially tobacco and alcohol, further actions are needed to protect public health from the vested interests of the industries – and here media can play a crucial role.

The issues the journalists raised are essential for the public to be aware of – and show an acute need for better communication between expert and media communities:

  • How do we expose deceitful research that claims alcohol and tobacco are “safe”?
  • How and where can we access reliable data?
  • Can we trust WHO data and can we check and show its credibility?
  • What are the media formats that would influence public views without being intimidating and condescending?
  • How do we target different age groups with appropriate health messages?

WHO Europe aims to be transparent, helpful and work together with other parties towards saving lives – and the media is a natural and powerful ally. As Dr João Breda, Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases put it: “A powerful media message can be more influential than years of theoretic work – and we are here to inform that message”.