Dr. Sarah Evans holds a Ph.D. in Communication, with an emphasis on Persuasion and Social Influence, from the University of Maryland. She also holds a M.A. in Communication from Wake Forest University and a B.S. in Communication Studies from Bridgewater College.
Ah, April. DC sports fans’ hopes are high—it’s early enough the Caps haven’t gotten knocked out of the playoffs unexpectedly soon, the Wizards are in the playoffs, and the Nats are back. Not much has changed. Harper and Murphy look to be back in a groove (and Zim?!); the bullpen looks shaky. And smokeless tobacco seems to be permitted in the park. Wait, didn’t D.C. prohibit the use of smokeless tobacco at Nationals Park and other sports venues?
When baseball season opened earlier this week, the big news for proponents of disassociating baseball and smokeless tobacco was that state and local laws saw nearly half of Major League ballparks completely tobacco-free, including smokeless tobacco-free. Among them this year is Nats Park—but you wouldn’t know it.
I went to the stadium early Wednesday to take some pictures of the new signage I expected to see—always be researching , right? The first sign I saw was tucked away behind the gates outside of the stadium. I had to get out of line, play over-eager tourist, and walk behind the metal detectors to take a look. And a picture. Nothing to see here, folks.
The first thing that caught my eye was the "Smoking Policy" title. Under that, the sign states: "No use of tobacco products permitted." In the tiniest of fine print, it says tobacco products may include chewing tobacco, snuff, snus, and smokeless tobacco.
Walking into the stadium, there was an announcement that the stadium is "smoke-free." Interesting word choice. I couldn’t have walked 100 feet before I saw a fan dipping. He easily could have been unaware of the new policy; I’m pretty confident I was the only one checking out the placard outside of the stadium. I walked the entire lower concourse searching for signage and then the entire second level. Nothing. Weird.
Increasingly curious, I asked a few ushers and employees with the "Ask Me" T-shirts what the policy was on smokeless tobacco use in the park. Five to be exact (hey, I was trying to watch the game too). Only one of them definitively told me no tobacco product use, including smokeless, was permitted inside the stadium. I got two not sure responses which both included information on the smoking and vaping policy, an "I think you can use smokeless; you just chew it and spit it into a can," and a definitive "You can use it as long as you don’t spit on the floor."
All of this begs the question, if we pass a policy and no one knows about it, is there reason to celebrate? As we’ve discussed previously, the context in which a behavior is performed (or not performed) is important—policies, norms, and individual behavior all influence each other. As such, policy interventions can support health behavior change, influencing environmental and social factors that impact behavior change. But—policy changes are one of many levels of influence—and they are hugely reliant on enforcement. Particularly for a substance notorious for being more discrete in nature, it’s critical to understand the benefits to use and barriers to quitting/abstaining as perceived by individuals.
That’s where communication becomes critical in making progress on behavior change and ultimately improving health and people’s lives. With a few simple audience-centered communication considerations, the Nats would be in a much better position to see the impact of a tobacco use policy change:
- Clear language matters. Calling attention to the "smoking policy" and describing the ballpark as "smoke-free" could imply that other tobacco use is permitted. Across our communication development and evaluation work, we continuously see the importance (impact) of messages that are clear, jargon free, and improve comprehension—and the reverse.
- Disclosures (e.g., fine print) aren’t an effective means to communicate essential information . We’ve seen across contexts in experimental studies and qualitative message testing that information in disclosures is missed, even among those with high involvement with/interest in a topic. I’m sure that passes everyone’s personal experience "sniff test" too—makes sense intuitively yet is a problematic characteristic of the current signage if the goal is to communicate a change in the smokeless tobacco use policy.
- The best designed messages still need to be seen/heard to have an impact. Not only was within park signage scarce and somewhat hidden (I did end up finding a couple more signs on a ramp between levels…off in a dark corner you would, again, need to deliberately seek out), but key sources of interpersonal conversation weren’t equipped to facilitate message dissemination (and behavior implementation). Both are missed opportunities for message exposure—the first step in awareness and change.
An alternate approach might be similar to a sign from Fenway Park in Boston (pictured below ), which clearly shows a can of smokeless tobacco in an easy to understand "no" symbol, could be digested easily while on the move throughout the stadium, and emphasizes tobacco free while still calling out no smoking. Coupled, of course, with dissemination among staff who can serve as hubs for word of mouth dissemination and interpersonal level nudges.
Despite the areas for increased/improved messaging, let’s not lose sight of the progress and potential impact dissociating tobacco use and Major League Baseball could have on youth behavior. And, as the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids playfully pointed out , the Cubbies went 100 years without a championship and then won the World Series within four months of prohibiting tobacco at Wrigley.
Here’s hoping we’ll see a little magic on the public health and baseball side of things this year!