Wyoming history includes a lesson, useful during these days of coronavirus. It was called “reward and remind.” Want people to wear masks? Try something positive.
The issue was teen tobacco use. The rate was so high in the late 1990s the federal government threatened to take away Wyoming’s substance abuse treatment funding.
In those days, politicians like Mike Pence denied scientific proof tobacco use was a health threat. He said, “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.” With the cover of political leaders like Pence, the big tobacco companies intentionally marketed their deadly product to kids as sales to adults dwindled. Tobacco profiteers knew if they could addict children, their profits would be secure for decades.
In those days, your child could walk into convenience or grocery stores and buy a pack of cigarettes. No questions. No ID. The money of a 10-year-old was as good as anyone’s. Lay down some cash, walk away with a pack of cigs. Many children became nicotine addicted through the accomplices at those stores.
It was not until Wyoming was confronted with losing all of its federal substance abuse treatment funds it decided to listen to the science, rather than tobacco company lobbyists. The question became, “How do you persuade grocers and convenience stores to change their business model?
After all, even those who wanted to prevent kids from buying tobacco had to rely on the cashier. That minimum-wage clerk doesn’t really care and certainly doesn’t want to be the social policeman. If the kid has the money and wants a pack, so what?
Levying fines against business owners seemed unfair when the violation was committed by a cashier. Fining a minimum-wage clerk wasn’t effective strategy. It was much like asking a grocery store employee to demand that a customer wear a mask. After all, the mask doesn’t protect the wearer. It protects strangers. In these days of consummate selfishness, how do you get someone to put themselves on the line to protect people they don’t even know?
That was the challenge Wyoming faced in reducing the sales of cigarettes to minors in 1998.
The solution? Reward and remind. A law was passed prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors. Then we hired young people to attempt to buy cigarettes. If the clerk illegally sold cigarettes, they were given “a reminder,” i.e. a card telling them why what they did was harmful and informing them of the potential fine.
If a clerk did the right thing, they were given a coupon saying, “Thank you for protecting our kids.” They could redeem it for a meal at a popular fast-food restaurant.
Within months, the rate of tobacco sales to minors plummeted.
Health experts teach us masks help keep people with COVID-19 from passing along the virus. Thus, people should be encouraged to wear them, right? But, many don’t. The president and vice president won’t even role model this behavior. How do we send an effective message so the community believes it matters?
What if we used “reward and remind” today? Instead of ugly confrontations between grocery store or other retail employees and their customers, employees at the door could politely hand out a card to every customer upon their entry.
No mask? You get a card saying, “The safety of others depends on you. If you wear a mask, the chance of others getting sick is substantially less. Thank you for caring about others.”
Those entering the establishment wearing a mask could also be given a card. It would read something like, “Thank you for caring about our employees and customers enough to wear a mask. We want to thank you with this coupon for 10% off of what you are about to purchase.”
While thanking customers for wearing a mask, you’d also provide an incentive to buy something. Win-win.
Reward and remind. It sends a supportive message that the community is grateful when people do the right thing.
Rodger McDaniel lives in Laramie and is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne.