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At our recent Big Walking Seminar, Scotland Director Stuart Hay and Living Streets' Vice President, Susan Claris chatted with Sheila Duffy, Chief Executive of ASH Scotland about the massive shifts society has seen as a result of smoking legislation. Here Stuart blogs for us about the lessons that the active travel sector can draw from these changes. 

We’ve known the science around the harm caused by tobacco since the 1950s but it took until 2006 for Scotland to ban smoking in public places. We also know the science around walking and health, but messages don’t always cut through.  

a woman walks across a zebra crossing

At our Big Walking Seminar, we asked Sheila how we can “win the war” to shift public perceptions around active travel and car use, pointing to a paper from 2011, ‘Are cars the new tobacco?’ which argued that private cars cause significant health harm including obesity, death and injury, cardio-respiratory disease, community severance and climate change, and compares car industry tactics to those of the tobacco industry. 

ASH Scotland resist framing discussion in terms of people who smoke vs. those who don’t; the dispute is between a toxic substance (i.e. tobacco smoke) and all people. They prefer to use positive language and examples of the benefits of behaviour change.  

One such example was an ex-smoker who enjoyed better mental health after giving up and as a result, left an abusive relationship. It seems the active travel sector needs to get better at sharing powerful case studies. 

A delegate asked: if the tobacco industry is the “villain” in the story about smoking legislation, who is the “villain” in the story about promoting active travel?  

Susan Claris, Living Streets’ Vice President explained that we need to target behaviours around ‘transport gluttony.’ Excessively large vehicles used for short journeys and parked for long periods of time in public spaces create a hostile environment. People are enticed into buying SUVs by car manufacturers and use them for journeys that could be made on foot or by bike, to justify their purchase.

Car owners frequently assume that they have the right to park outside their own home. 

Panel members agreed that there is a need to balance rights and freedoms and to offer practical solutions embedded in communities. Sheila noted that many pro-smoking lobbyists have argued for the right to smoke, while the voices of those harmed physically, mentally and financially were silenced. No one argued for the right to breathe. 

Small steps can help to alter mindsets and create larger, long-lasting shifts. Susan used the example of the introduction of car-free streets in Freiberg, Germany. In the beginning these were introduced in single streets. Once people saw the benefits, neighbouring areas wanted to enjoy them too. 

So instead of talking in terms of giving things up or losing parking spaces, we need to build stronger partnerships with groups representing children and older people, disabled people and those tackling climate change to align on positive messaging around streets that are safer, greener and healthier. We need to call together as one voice for the right to breathe and to freely move. 

Sheila Duffy in conversation at Living Streets Scotland’s Big Walking Seminar.

About the author

Stuart Hay

Scotland Director, Living Streets

[email protected]