Tobacco Control

Unless urgent action is taken to reverse this global epidemic, the World Health Organization reports that tobacco will kill as many as one billion people this century, taking a greater claim on human health than any other single disease.

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Vital Strategies works internationally to grow and shape a global anti-tobacco agenda, and, as a main partner in the $1 billion Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use, we work to support the adoption of proven policies in more than 40 countries.

Our Approach

As the leading preventable agent of death in the world, tobacco is responsible for more than six million deaths each year. This deadly product contributes to the onset of all four of the most common non-communicable diseases: cancer, heart and lung disease and diabetes. Working globally and in more than 40 countries, Vital Strategies uses policy, advocacy and strategic communication to urge governments to adopt proven tobacco control strategies, and partners with them to encourage life-saving, public health “best buys.”

Vital Strategies delivers evidence-based public education campaigns and builds local health capacity to raise awareness about the dangers of tobacco. Our campaigns encourage quitting, delay initiation, support policy goals, smoke-free environments, enforcement, and over the long term, change behaviors around the acceptability of smoking and attitudes about the tobacco industry.

About 80 percent of tobacco-caused illness and death today is in low- and middle-income countries. This is due largely to the tobacco industry’s strategy of targeting young people and women in the developing world, which is changing patterns of smoking behavior, as well as to population growth. We work where populations and prevalence are highest, including China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Brazil, among other countries. 


of tobacco-caused illness and death will be in low-income contries


mass media campaigns launched

Our tobacco control mass media campaigns have been seen by more than 2 billion people in over 30 countries

We are one of five global partners of the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Global Tobacco Use

We produce The Tobacco Atlas, (fifth ed.) the most comprehensive, accessible information on the evolving global tobacco epidemic. Topics include health harms, markets and industry practices

We support production of WHO’s MPOWER reports, the world’s first-ever review of tobacco use in 195 countries

Tobacco is also a global development issue. In addition to the high costs of treating diseases caused by its use, tobacco kills people at the peak of their wage-earning capacity, with negative economic impacts on the economies of people and communities.

Tobacco deprives families of their breadwinners, robs nations of a healthy and productive workforce, and adds to lost economic opportunities and a continuation of the cycle of poverty that exists in many countries. Vital Strategies supports and participates in fighting for the principles of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the world’s first international public health treaty.

Sustainable Funding Mechanisms for Population-Level Tobacco Control Communication

One essential way for countries to comply with WHO recommendations on reduced tobacco use is to mount high-reach, effective campaigns on media platforms that reach large populations such as television, radio, and increasingly, mobile and social media.

While media campaigns do require significant outlay of resources, considerable evidence shows they are cost-efficient.

Vital Strategies has authored a position paper – Sustainable Funding Mechanisms for Population-Level Tobacco Control Communication Programs, launched at the Conference of the Parties (COP7) in India in November 2016.

Download the position paper.

Case Study

Giving Voice to Victims in Indonesia

Robby was 26-years old when his doctor told him that he had stage-3 laryngeal cancer. In time, it would deprive him of his ability to breathe, speak or eat solid foods. The news was shocking, but the cause was certain. Robby lit his first cigarette in elementary school, and continued the habit until his diagnosis.

According to The Tobacco Atlas, roughly 2.6 million children and more than 53 million adults in Indonesia use tobacco each day, killing nearly 20 percent of men and over eight percent of women in the country each year.

Years before Robby’s diagnosis, Vital Strategies had been working in Indonesia, developing evidence-based public education campaigns and building local health capacity to raise awareness about the dangers of tobacco. In Indonesia and around the world, our campaigns have encouraged people to quit smoking, or to delay initiation. Robby had seen and been deeply moved by one of our earlier campaigns.

We had produced “Panjaitan” for the Ministry of Health, and it was the first national anti-smoking mass media campaign in the country. It coincided with the release of new graphic health warnings on cigarette packs, depicting the gruesome consequences of smoking. Both had encouraged Robby to pursue medical treatment. And according to Robby’s father, it also pushed him to do something more.

Panjaitan aired across Indonesia in 2015, and had a profound impact on many people

Robby chronicled his struggles, taking footage as he underwent his first operation, and when they cut a hole in his throat so he could breathe, and sharing these difficulties on facebook. Soon, his posts went viral. Robby, who worried that he might not be around for much longer, started to see that he really could do something important with the time he had left.

Around the same time, Vital Strategies was planning a new campaign. As we were figuring out the best way to move ahead with it, Robby’s story was brought to our attention. He had not just gained an online following, but had even picked up coverage in local papers. All on his own, Robby had crafted a compelling narrative that people were really responding to. At that point, there was no question as to whose story we thought should be told next. We wanted the entire country to know about Robby.

Robby’s home videos depicted his struggles and his perseverance as he fought against cancer.

When we reached out to Robby, he was enthusiastic. Of course he would do it, he told us. His only request was that we wait a few more months. He had another operation coming up, and he believed that once it was completed, he would come out of the hospital stronger, with more energy to dedicate to the campaign. Unfortunately, that was not the case. After the operation, and little more than a week before we were to begin filming, Robby’s cancer took his life.

But the story does not end there. After his death, Robby’s family still wanted to continue the campaign. We travelled to Samarinda to interview his loved ones. Robby’s friends and family reflected on his life, and what they had lost when Robby died. His mother had stayed strong through her interview. But towards the end, when she thought about the last cake Robby had baked for her, she began to cry. Robby had loved to cook for his mother, and even though he could not eat the food anymore, it made him happy to watch his mother enjoy the food he could still prepare for her. As she thought about her son, she made her final appeal: “Please don’t let there be any more Robbies.”

We used those interviews, along with the home videos Robby had posted, to make a documentary-style PSA. It wasn’t as glossy and polished as Panjaitan or Ike were, but when people saw it, they connected deeply to the messages, and the pain. It was personal, visceral, real.

Robby’s PSA was viewed by over 500,000 people in one month

Robby’s death catalyzed the online tobacco control community, and his testimonial garnered the biggest viewership of any campaign Vital Strategies produced in Indonesia, with 500,000 views in one month, more than double that of “Ike”, released a few months earlier.

The campaign also anchored the May 2016 launch of the #suaratanparokok social media campaign, and prompted Indonesia’s Ministry of Health to commit funding for PSA production for the first time, in addition to their media placement budget.

Social media campaigns like #suaratanparokok, with stories like Robby’s, are filling larger roles alongside traditional mass media, prompting increased government funding in partner countries and keeping public and media pressure on the need for cigarette pack warnings and increased prices and taxes.

Robby’s death was painful and tragic. And even more so because it was entirely preventable. The only saving grace is that he transformed his tragedy into a compelling plea to save the lives of others. And if Robby’s last wish was to tell his story as powerfully as possible, we believe he succeeded.

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