Anti-Smoking PSAs Are Anti-Disability

I have read the latest series of anti-smoking Public Service Announcements (PSA) from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from a disability theory lens, particularly because of the ways the PSAs featured the individuals. Entitled, “Tips from Former Smokers,” the series focuses on several former smokers who share “tips” on how to negotiate life with a breathing stoma or a laryngectomy stoma:

The people depicted in this PSA describe how they need to alter their lives as a result of the stoma: not facing the shower, suctioning out the tube before eating, and not bending down. The commercial ends with the sentence, “Smoking causes immediate damage to your body.” While this is a very powerful commercial in the ways it addresses the damage that smoking can cause, coming from a disability theory perspective, the ways the commercial treats these three individuals is problematic.

This PSA presents the disabled body as abject, as monstrous.

The PSA about smoking and Buerger’s Disease focuses on the incompleteness of the body, the lack, and disease of the body. These individuals are depicted as fractured rather than as whole subjects. This is perhaps the most toxic effect of ableism: the individual with a disability is no longer seen as a complete person. They are objects, things to be displayed. The elements of spectacle and freakery in these PSAs are uncanny. The disabled body is shown as an embodiment to avoid.

In this way, the PSAs stress what not to do–smoking–by stressing the terror associated with bodily difference: the body with missing limbs, the bald body, the body with missing teeth, and the scarred body are all signs of what to fear. The following PSA demonstrates this most clearly:

Not only do these PSAs present the disabled body in its difference as a source of terror, but they create a clear dichotomy between the able and disabled body. These PSAs are contrasted with another from the same series that shows images of people who have quit smoking. The “Cessation” PSA depicts active, able bodied individuals, people who create a stark contrast to the individuals in the other PSAs in the series:

While I certainly do not believe that smoking is good for the body and that we must raise awareness about quitting smoking, I do believe that the ways we disseminate this information needs to be done strategically and not at the cost of people with disabilities.

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4 Responses to Anti-Smoking PSAs Are Anti-Disability

  1. Space Crip says:

    What an insightful post! I hadn’t noticed before but anti-smoking PSAs employ the disability boogey man with alarming frequency. I remember one PSA discouraging smoking by arguing that second-hand smoke would cause asthma and other respiratory impairments in children with the camera zooming in on an adorable little able-bodied child being attacked by CGI smoke. There’s also an episode of 7th Heaven (a show that was essentially a giant public service announcement for WASPs) wherein the eldest son is caught smoking. The minister-father sends the boy to help out a cranky, old chain-smoking woman who uses an oxygen tank. The boy learns his lesson and swears off cigarettes, determined to never become one of those angry cripples. At the end of the episode, it’s revealed that the woman was faking her need for an oxygen tank in order to teach the kid a lesson at the request of his father.

  2. TWeiss says:

    Now Playing – The CDC’s Stigmatizing Assault on People with Disabilities

    A similar take, along the same line of thought. The ads by the CDC make me question the organization itself.

  3. Christina says:

    Wow, that was really an eye opener, I never thought of this. I would watch the ads and just shake my head at disgust, now I realized that this disgust was not right. Thanks for sharing!

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