On harnessing the ‘social moment’ – the case of the UK ban on smoking in public spaces

I’ve been exploring the idea that change becomes more likely in times when certain conditions or factors align, whether by design or accident. Working with Mary Douglas’ Cultural theory, my hypothesis is that they do so across the different domains of the individual, and their motivation and agency to act; the collective, and the social norms and sense of solidarity that pervades the group; the organisation and the hierarchical power and legitimacy that they can leverage. Further, work we have done at the RSA suggests that change becomes more likely when the opportunity aligns across all three areas. This is what I think of as a ‘social moment’, what the Greeks called kairos, the appropriate or opportune time for something, an opening of possibility as opposed to the linear progression of time which the Greeks knew as chronos. Let’s apply this thinking in a case study and consider smoking.  

In 1962 the Royal College of Physicians published its ground-breaking study demonstrating that smoking was a cause of lung cancer. Since then, a raft of legislation and a multitude of public health policies have sought to reduce the burden of disease and death associated with tobacco use. From banning tobacco advertising and putting warnings on tobacco packaging (and imposing plain packaging), to taxing tobacco and banning smoking in public places, the blunt power of the state has purportedly been highly effective in helping to reduce smoking and its harmful effects. These are the levers of hierarchical power in full deployment – economic, legal and marketing. 

But we see that anti-smoking policies and initiatives have been effective for two major reasons, both of which provide crucial insight into the way that hierarchy interacts with solidarity and individualism to create social and policy change. 

First, as the smoking ban was being implemented significant shifts in social attitudes and social norms towards smoking had already been underway for some time. By 1994, only 27 percent of people smoked – a dramatic decline from 1974, when 45 percent did so. The vast majority of people had recognised smoking as harmful at both an individual and societal level – and also accepted as legitimate not only the aim to reduce smoking but also to prevent exposure to second-hand smoke. This is why even amongst smokers, 79 percent supported the smoking ban in restaurants (and 36 percent in pubs). Decades of public health policies and initiatives to reduce smoking – coupled with changing social norms – had created the environment for a ban to have legitimacy and to succeed. This is often known as the ‘Overton window’ – the point at which particular policies become acceptable to mainstream public opinion and are no longer considered too radical.  

Automatic enrolment into the organ donation register provides an interesting case study of a public health issue where a hierarchical response was eschewed because of a lack of social demand or perceived legitimacy. Enrolling everyone automatically into the donation register would made a substantial, immediate and positive public health impact but policymakers decided against it at the time because they determined there was not enough social consensus on the issue, and that pursuing the auto-enrolment at the time would undermine the trust and legitimacy upon which successful public health interventions rest. 

Second, the dynamic interaction between hierarchical, solidaristic and individual sources of action helps explain the success of the smoking ban. The ban wasn’t simply responding to a social demand (i.e. changing attitudes and expectations about smoking and how to manage its public health impacts), but rather was also itself shaping social norms and expectations, making compliance more likely. 

The ban reinforced (and increased) the “social sanctions” (i.e. social disapproval) associated with smoking indoors and, according to research by Nyborg et al. (2016) almost overnight changed the behaviour of smokers – even in unregulated areas such as homes, where indoor smoking dramatically decreased. In other words, the ban provided the “tipping point” that transformed a major problem into a virtuous cycle reinforced by changing social norms and individual behaviours. 

Interesting, Nyborg et al. find that in Greece anti-smoking laws did not have the desired effect partly because it did not seem to impact social sanctions sufficiently: individuals who breached the laws were not met with the same levels of social disapproval. This produced a form of fatalism: smokers did not change their behaviour because the social sanctions were not present (‘why should I stop smoking if no one else will do stop too?’), while others reasoned that nothing would change the way smokers behaved.  

If social moments provide the broad conditions under which change is possible – or even likely – it is the “tipping points” that often lead it to happen. Tipping points refer to the moments in which vicious cycles of behaviour turn into virtuous ones (or vice versa). 

People become more willing to choose to behave a different way the more widespread that behaviour becomes. Thus, social feedback loops in society may encourage someone to give up smoking (or to stop smoking indoors) if others are doing it too. But it is the “tipping point” that produces widespread behavioural and social norm change. 

Sometimes, policy can act as the tipping point by reinforcing social feedbacks that promote positive norm change, for example by increasing the visibility of social expectations and sanctions. Seen in this way, the smoking ban increased the visibility of the emerging bounds of smoking behaviour deemed acceptable, and the likely social sanctions associated with smoking indoors. This dramatically altered people’s expectations of how they could and couldn’t behave. 

Not only did people largely stop smoking in public buildings without the need for blunt enforcement, but many also stopped smoking in places that were not regulated or affected by the legislation. Often, effective policies that develop into tipping points are sequenced, intelligently responding to social demand but also changing it over time. 

For example, Norway has the highest per capita number of electric cars, and this followed multiple policies over a number of years, from bus lane access to road tolls to reduced taxes. Similarly, the smoking ban followed a raft of other anti-smoking measures, each sequenced and responding to and shaping its social context. 

While social change is generally considered more an art than a science, looking at a challenge through these three lenses of individual motivation, collective solidarity and organisational hierarchy can offer insights and actions that increase the likelihood of change.  


Nyborb et al. (2016) Social norms as solutions. Science October 2016. Link: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/354/6308/42.full?ijkey=Qz9Zy3zjQeWuk&keytype=ref&siteid=sci 

Scheffer, M. (2009) Critical Transitions in Nature and Society (Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ). 

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