Kids create art with a message: Don't smoke

The South Beach section of this Florida oceanside island is known as a magnet for experimental artists. But the works currently on display in the lobby of the Wolfsonian museum here represent a particularly innovative approach by a new generation of designers, filmmakers, painters and sculptors.

They are grade-schoolers. And they have a message: Cigarette advertising can be hazardous to your health.

That's the point of a new Florida program called Artful Truth, aimed at teaching elementary school students to recognize the seductive message of tobacco advertisements. The cigarette manufacturers' tactics are revealed to the fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders, then the children create art to convey their own messages about tobacco use. "Sometimes it's what you don't do that makes you cool," is a caption on a multimedia collage assembled by students at a Sarasota elementary school. "If You Smoke You Croak," is the blunt title of a short film by fourth- and fifth-graders at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale.

Children at Palm Springs Elementary in Lake Worth created an especially haunting image. They sculpted heads of gray clay and fired them in a smoke-filled pit, a technique which gave them a charred appearance. Clay cigarette butts were pressed into the busts like a weird hairdo. The students titled the work "Buttheads."

"If kids understand manipulation, then they will make better decisions. They won't buy into that smoking is cool, as the ads convey to them," says Cathy Leff, director of the Wolfsonian museum, which developed and administered the $1.4 million program. Some 2,000 students from 106 schools and youth groups participated in what supporters called a "healthy propaganda arts project."

Artful Truth is part of the $70 million Florida Tobacco Pilot Program set up to develop effective ways to keep kids away from tobacco. The pilot campaign includes the controversial Truth campaign, a media-blitz run by teens. The efforts are being funded from Florida's $13 billion legal settlement with the tobacco industry two years ago. The guiding premise is that when kids learn the facts about cigarette-marketing efforts, they will decide that it is neither cool nor rebellious to act as a dupe of the tobacco industry.

Surveys suggest the Truth campaign has struck a chord with Florida teens. Some 92 percent of questioned teens knew of the campaign and within the first year of the project teen smoking in Florida dropped 10 percent.

It is still too early to assess the effectiveness of Artful Truth on elementary schoolchildren, but teachers praise it. "It isn't just, 'Let's tell them about it.' It is a hands-on approach. When you are doing something with your hands, you are thinking about it," says Marilyn Polin, an art teacher at Cutler Ridge Elementary School near Miami.

"It is a way of empowering kids and getting them to think critically," says Linda Graham, an art teacher at Whispering Pines Elementary in Miami. "We live in a world where we are surrounded by images and colors and messages, and we are being influenced all the time. My role as an educator is to point that out."

Bill Novelli of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington also gives high marks to the Artful Truth program. "There is a theory that essentially kids at a very young age are totally antitobacco and anticigarettes and, as they get older, they get drawn into the tobacco culture," Mr. Novelli says. "This is a kind of inoculation strategy to keep that from happening."

Despite the apparent success of the program, the future of Artful Truth and the entire pilot program remains uncertain. Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has expressed his support for such antitobacco efforts, but the program's $70 million budget has been cut in half and several officials who played key roles in the program's success were fired earlier this year. In this year's budget debate, the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives proposed zero funding for the entire antitobacco effort.

Many antismoking activists believe the program may have been so effective that the tobacco industry is working on politicians in Tallahassee to shut it down. A similar campaign in California was closed down after heavy lobbying by cigarette manufacturers.

Nationwide, states are beginning to debate how to spend the proceeds of tobacco litigation settlements. The joint settlement signed by most states includes a legal clause that bars state-run antismoking advertising campaigns that vilify a particular tobacco product, company, or the industry itself. Analysts say such specific attacks have been particularly effective in Florida. The legal provision does not apply to Florida because its settlement was negotiated earlier than the 46-state settlement.

For the moment, art teachers are gearing up for another year of Artful Truth. To Ms. Leff the program comes down to a public-safety issue. "Having a safe place for kids," she says, isn't just about after-school programs that keep "kids off the street." Safety is also about "kids being free from manipulation" by the tobacco advertisers.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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