Teenagers Taking Charge In Antismoking Campaign

Florida's new hard-edge crusade, led by teens, is viewed as a model for other states.

The State of Florida is spending millions of dollars encouraging every teen in the state to adopt an attitude of constructive rebellion toward the tobacco industry and any business that promotes cigarette use among the young.

In effect, they want Florida's youths to be rebels with a cause.

It's all part of the experimental antismoking Truth Campaign that features an in-your-face message approved by Florida's own teens. The campaign is aimed at demonstrating to young people that it is more cool for teenagers to confront the cigarette industry and its supporters than to continue to be duped by decades of lies and misperceptions about tobacco.

"Before this campaign I really didn't know about the tobacco industry manipulation. You'd hear a little about it, but I didn't realize how much the industry had been targeting youths," says Jenny Lee, an incoming freshman at the University of Miami who is helping direct the campaign.

"For years and years [teens] have been told that smoking is cool and if you want to look hot and hang out with cool kids you need to smoke," Ms. Lee says. "Now we are fighting back."

Two television advertisements that have aired in Florida demonstrate the concept of a campaign that seeks to tap a rebellious streak in many teens.

One ad features teens dressed as terrorists wearing ski masks. A young woman delivers an ultimatum of sorts. She says "you" (the tobacco industry) have been targeting us to replace the thousands of smokers who died. She adds that they just wanted to introduce themselves because "you are going to see us in the future." The camera pans back to encompass a large group of teens who remove their masks, wave, and say, "Hi."

In another ad, two high-school students make an actual telephone call to a famous Hollywood movie producer. They reach his secretary.

"We're just asking about maybe putting a warning label on movies that glamorize smoking. Something like: The makers of this film couldn't think of any ways to make the characters cool or sexy or rebellious or rockin', so instead they'll just smoke."

The secretary grows nervous. "I've got to go. I've got another call," she says. "I will do my best to get him the message," she says.

The teens aren't convinced. "How's the message go again?" one asks. "I've got to go," the secretary says. She hangs up. The teens laugh.

Such ads have already sparked controversy.

The irreverence and the edge of the ads concern some parents and other adult viewers. To some it seems the state is advocating questionable tactics that might cause some teens to believe it is acceptable to be disrespectful of or harass someone.

But antismoking activists say upsetting a few adults will be worth it if the antitobacco message resonates with young people.

"Adults have to realize that that [in your face] attitude is really part of kids' culture and is part of the effectiveness of the campaign," says Bill Novelli, president of the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "This whole strategy of youth advocacy - some call it youth empowerment - I think is a very strong strategy," says Mr. Novelli.

The challenge of the campaign is not only to appeal to well-behaved and high-achieving teens, those with good grades who probably don't smoke anyway, but to appeal to every teen in the state, including those who have dropped out and have little use for advice from adults.

"What an adult wants a child to hear sometimes is far different from what a child will respond to," adds Greg Connolly, director of the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program. "It is a good empowerment message, fighting back against the tobacco industry," he says. "If you can harness the teen rebellion and have them rebel against the tobacco industry and not smoke - that's a wise thing."

Antismoking campaigns have been waged in states such as Massachusetts, California, and Arizona. But two factors differentiate the current Florida campaign. First it is being directed by a board composed entirely of teenagers. No ad will air unless the teen directors believe it will be effective with their peers.

The second factor is money. The campaign has an unprecedented $200 million war chest funded 100 percent by the tobacco industry. It is part of last year's $11.3 billion settlement of Florida's lawsuit against tobacco.

Some antismoking activists say this campaign is the most promising ever, and if successful could provide a blueprint for other states. If the tobacco industry continues to settle lawsuits filed by state attorneys general, similar industry-funded campaigns may soon pop up across the nation.

"The basic idea is that smokers and nonsmokers know that smoking is bad for your health. That is old news," says Jared Perez, a high school student in Palm Harbor who is marketing director for the Truth project.

"We are interested in getting the truth about what they have done into the public eye," he says.

In addition to television ads, Florida's Truth Campaign includes newspaper, radio, and magazine ads aimed at countering the effect of the $4.83 billion the industry spends on advertising and marketing each year. Under the tobacco settlement, Big Tobacco ended all public advertising in Florida earlier this year, and many billboards that once contained tobacco ads now are carrying an anti-tobacco message.

For younger kids, the state spent $1 million last month to distribute 600,000 copies of a special edition of the Berenstein Bears children's book to every first-, second-, and third-grader in Florida. The book tells the story of how one of the bears resists the urging of others to try smoking.

The program is also helping to financially support police departments that conduct enforcement actions aimed at fining teens and children in possession of cigarettes and taking legal action against stores selling tobacco products to minors. In addition, the Truth Campaign has organized local chapters in every Florida county to conduct grass-roots efforts to counter smoking. From July 31 to Aug. 10, a "Truth Train" will wend its way across Florida making whistle stops, sponsoring rallies and concerts.

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