Antismoking Ads Will Target Teens

New coalition plans advertising counterattack

For decades, tobacco companies have honed messages that portray smoking as a sophisticated, glamorous activity. Now, the Clinton administration is initiating an unprecedented effort to convince teenagers otherwise.

A host of government agencies, marketing executives, and health groups met in Washington this week for the first time to discuss what marketing concepts may work and how to launch a national youth anti-smoking campaign.

"The meeting showed us how complex the issues are and where a major public education program can do some good, not just among kids but also for policy and adult smoking," says Bill Novelli, director of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, the nonprofit organization that sponsored the meeting.

There is no federal funding or deadline set for the controversial ad campaign, says Michael Eriksen, director of the Office on Smoking and Health, part of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. But the Food and Drug Administration is working on ways to get the tobacco industry to pay for the effort.

During the past two years, Dr. Eriksen's office has funded university research projects on marketing and about 200 focus groups of teenagers around the country. The government is also talking with marketing experts at major companies that produce blue jeans, sneakers, and cosmetics.

The federal campaign will draw upon the experiences of Massachusetts, California, and Arizona, which already have public antismoking education programs. This past November, Oregon voters approved a tax on tobacco to begin their own program.

But even the state campaigns have been fraught with controversy and mixed findings. In California, which has the largest program in the nation, public health groups are in a bitter battle with Gov. Pete Wilson and the State Department of Health over the $131 million effort. One group, the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation, has run ads accusing Governor Wilson of aiding the tobacco industry.

Mary Adams of the American Heart Association in Sacramento says health groups have not been allowed to give their input about the state's new ads, which are due to be released in March.

The past year's ads, she says, were "absolutely ineffective, bland, it's almost as if they were created by the tobacco industry." Ms. Adams argues the state needs the input from the groups. "Clearly there is a strong interest to make sure the money is appropriately spent."

But Linda Frost at the Health Department says the groups were left out because they tend to leak information to the media. Ms. Frost says critics only want ads that "bash the tobacco industry."

For example, the state's most successful ad, according to Adams, featured news footage of industry executives testifying before Congress that nicotine is not addictive. The ad concluded, "Do they think we're stupid?" But Jim Stratton, the state Health Officer, says he was forced to take the ad off the air because of the threat of tobacco company lawsuits.

FROST says the state's research shows children are impressed by ads that show how the tobacco industry aims its products at them through subtle marketing techniques. And, Dr. Stratton says any media campaign must be part of an overall approach. He spends one-third of his budget on local programs, such as poster contests, one-third on supporting non-profit efforts and one-third on the media counter advertising campaign. "You need a multi-prong attack," says Stratton.

Despite the state's efforts, teenage smoking in California has been growing - although at less than the national average. Stratton says this is because the tobacco companies have doubled the amount of money they are spending on marketing in the state.

On a per capita basis, Massachusetts is spending six times what California spends on its anti-smoking efforts. However, as in California, teenage smoking rates are rising. "We have had great success with the 18 to 34 year old age group, where smoking is down by 30 percent, but with kids it's much more complex," says Greg Connolly, director of the state's Tobacco Control Program. He hopes to have greater success with new ads which focus on how tobacco makes kids lose control of their lives. The new ads will be watched closely by the group that met in Washington. Says Novelli, "Everyone agreed we must reach kids."

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