TOPICS > Health

Campaign to Curb Youth Smoking

August 11, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Television looks at how several states are using cigarette taxes to fuel their anti-smoking campaigns.

LEE HOCHBERG: In Oregon and all over the country more and more teenagers are smoking. One way to stop them is to enforce the federal law which forbids minors to smoke and requires clerks to check ID for anyone under age 17.

MAN: Can I get a pack of Marlboro hard too?

WOMAN: Excuse me.

MAN: Marlboro hard, can I get pack?

WOMAN: Do you have your ID with you?

LEE HOCHBERG: Random inspections show 62 percent of kids in the county who want cigarettes are able to buy them and 25 percent of all teens in the state smoke. Clerks who sell to minors are subject to fines, but the people of Oregon wanted to do more than just crack down on illegal sales.

Last fall, Oregon voters approved a 30 cent per pack hike in the state’s cigarette tax, hoping the higher price would discourage consumption. The tax would also generate 8 ½ million dollars a year for an anti-smoking program. The question for Oregon legislators was just what kind of program would work.

STATE REP. FRANK SHIELDS, (D) Oregon: There has been a 400 percent increase in youth smoking. Did you hear me? 400 percent.

LEE HOCHBERG: Portland Democrat Frank Shields thinks a comprehensive program is needed using the schools, using the community, and using television to spread the anti-smoking message.

STATE REP. FRANK SHIELDS: Whether you like it or not, two or three hours, the kids watch television in the evening. Everybody sees it. Everybody responds to it. It creates the images that we live with all the time.

LEE HOCHBERG: He wants spots like this one, which already has aired in California, to appear in Oregon homes.

WOMAN IN AD: They say nicotine isn’t addictive. How can they say that?

STATE REP. FRANK SHIELDS: A lady smoking a cigarette through a trach tube in her throat because of throat cancer, that will have an impact in kids. Some good, powerful ads that shock people into thinking are not at all bad.

LEE HOCHBERG: But legislator Lenn Hannon, a Republican from Ashland, insists it’s not the place of state government to air commercials that assault a legal industry. Hannon, who smokes up to three packs a day, says the state should spread information, not propaganda.

STATE SEN. LENN HANNON, (R) Oregon: It really, quite frankly, insults the intelligence of the voter, and it insults the intelligence of the smoker. General persuasion works far better than taking a two by four and hitting them alongside of the head with it.

LEE HOCHBERG: Hannon and the tobacco industry proposed an alternative, put much of the anti-prevention money into anti-smoking school programs instead. Tobacco lobbyist Mark Nelson works for R.J. Reynolds.

MARK NELSON, Tobacco Industry Lobbyist: We believe very strongly that we need to take that message into the classroom; that we needed as much personalization between the individual delivering the message and the minor, the children. And we believe the best and easiest place, without having to, you know, make a large new bureaucracy, is through–in the K through 12 educational system; take it straight into the classroom.

LEE HOCHBERG: Ironically, Oregon educators don’t think anti-tobacco education should be concentrated in the schools. They cite a 1994 surgeon general report which says the effects of school programs last only one to three years, unless they’re enhanced by youth-oriented mass media and counter advertising. Judy Miller is assistant superintendent for the Oregon Office of Student Services.

JUDY MILLER, Oregon Education Department: Students only spend a small portion of their life in school. They’re there thirty-five to forty hours a week for nine months out of the year. And then they’re out in the community the rest of the time. If we have all the dollars, then we have all the responsibility for reducing the number of smokers in Oregon. And I don’t think we can meet that as effectively by ourselves.

LEE HOCHBERG: Legislator Shields says the industry’s effort to chair the money to schools is a veiled attempt to waste it.

STATE REP. FRANK SHIELDS: So I think it’s very clear. They want to make tobacco prevention campaigns as ineffective as possible. And if you can get it into a boring health class somewhere, nobody’s going to listen. If I can speak to you directly and try to deliver a message about tobacco use and why you should not be using tobacco, I think that is 10 times more effective than something you’re going to see on television.

LEE HOCHBERG: Oregon health officials are meeting with colleagues from other states to determine what has worked elsewhere. California started collecting a 25 cents per pack tax in 1989, raising $150 million a year for its prevention program. Mediator Director Colleen Stevens says the state’s campaign has induced 1.3 million Californians to quit smoking, and she considers TV commercials an essential part of the package.

COLLEEN STEVENS, California Anti-Tobacco Programs: We are trying to combat what we see as a real resurgence of tobacco–pro-tobacco messages again in movies, in television, and places like that, where there is a real resurgence of smoking in school.

LEE HOCHBERG: The California campaign, though, has been unable to reverse the rising rate of teen smoking, so the state now is airing its most aggressive messages yet targeted directly to kids.

SPOKESMAN: (Ad) They spend millions trying to grab your attention, push you into smoking, because once they get you where they want you, they’ve got you for good.

COLLEEN STEVENS: That spot really twisted it around and showed kids that they weren’t being independent and rebellious, starting to smoke. It made kids mad that they were really being manipulated by the tobacco industry.

LEE HOCHBERG: The surgeon general’s report also recommends that media campaigns be backed up by community programs that create anti-tobacco youth culture. Several California towns have organized events like this gear exchange, where teens gave away clothing that promotes tobacco brand names.

Arizona uses some of the $10 million a year anti-smoking money it generates from cigarette taxes to dispatch a Humvee to schools. Called the Ash Kicker, it houses vivid anti-smoking exhibits. Arizona also uses TV ads. The state says its campaign to label tobacco a tumor-causing, teeth-staining, smelly, puking habit has caught fire among young people.

TEEN IN AD: Tobacco–tumor-causing, teen-staining, smelly, puking habit.

LEE HOCHBERG: Thousands of T-shirts and other mementos with that slogan have been sold. A university study found tobacco sales dropped 8 percent in a year, but neither California nor Arizona health officials are completely satisfied with their programs.

Arizona officials say a successful program would also target adult smokers. The tobacco lobbyists talked the state legislature out of that. In California, state media director Stevens also says opponents are trying to hamstring its program.

COLLEEN STEVENS: Every time you think you have a win, you have to realize there’s just going to be another hurdle to get to your goal after that.

LEE HOCHBERG: In these letters tobacco industry lawyers pressured TV stations to drop one anti-smoking commercial, which featured an industry executive testifying that nicotine does not meet the classical definition of addictive.

The commercial implied he was lying, an implication the lawyers called a false, defamatory, libelous attack upon his honesty and integrity. Two stations did remove the ad but the state stood by it. In another maneuver tobacco interests spent $19 million last year on a ballot measure that would have rolled back local restrictions on smoking.

COLLEEN STEVENS: The smarter we get about fighting the issue of tobacco, they’re getting smarter faster than we are.

SPOKESMAN: It’s part of their modus operandi. You know, you’ve got to paint this evil, big corporation over here, and the truth being is that for, you know, for years now, the tobacco industry has millions of dollars to try and convince children not to smoke. But the opposition’s goals is to stop all sales of cigarettes, period.

LEE HOCHBERG: Having heard all the arguments, the Oregon legislature decided to fund television spots and community and school programs. Believing it will be hard for the industry to fight every initiative in every community, the state will fund local, anti-smoking coalitions, which will lobby for local ordinances that control tobacco access.