Ray Lader used to be an ideal client for tobacco companies: he was 12 years old, loyal to his brand and addicted. But in a few years, he became a big thorn in his side. Like thousands of other young people in Florida, Lader became an activist for the Truth Campaign, an unprecedented and highly successful program to curb teen smoking.
Lader has the perfect credentials for an anti-smoking crusader. He is articulate, ambitious, and extremely angry. He was in seventh grade when his father, a two-pack-a-day smoker, died of a heart attack at age 48. Six months later, a teacher who had comforted Lader after the tragedy died of lung cancer. When a Truth Campaign spokeswoman visited his ninth-grade class, he was ready to listen. “He told us how the tobacco companies manipulate us and that made me angry,” she says. “At that point, I decided to get involved. And I’m never going to stop.”
Lader is not the only one who is enthusiastic about tobacco. Tens of thousands of Florida teens have joined the fight. They have formed SWAT (Students Working Against Tobacco) teams that visit primary and secondary schools. They have worked in community groups that pushed for stricter regulations. They have discussed issues with legislators. In a break from normal protocol, they also served as consultants for a multimillion-dollar media blitz that included witty TV commercials and flashy billboards, many bearing the slogan “Our brand is the truth.”
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As repeated polls showed, the message came through loud and clear. “The campaign really resonated with kids,” says Danny McGoldrick, vice president of research for the National Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Smoking among Florida high school students dropped by 47 percent in three years. The decline among high school students was an impressive 31 percent. “That works out for about 75,000 kids who [aren’t] smoking,” says McGoldrick.
Despite this record, the Truth Campaign came under attack. Some funding for the program was reduced; others were diverted to other social programs in the wake of state budget cuts. Anti-smoking activists also suspect that the tobacco industry had something to do with the funding cuts. Danny McGoldrick, meanwhile, has his suspicions. “Florida legislators have received $800,000 in campaign contributions from the tobacco industry since the program began,” he says. “I think they know what the industry wants.”
Just when it looked like the program would go away entirely, anti-tobacco activists scored a big victory: Florida voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that requires the government to spend at least 15 percent (about $57 million) of money from the tobacco settlement each year on anti-smoking programs, including at least five percent on education and counter-marketing media.
However, previous budget cuts may have already taken their toll. Surveys suggest that the decline in smoking among middle and high school students has slowed in recent years. Anti-tobacco activists hope to hasten the decline with renewed funding for their campaigns.
The American Journal of Public Health published a report that attributed an overall 22 percent decline in youth smoking directly to the Truth Campaign. Over a two-year period, the study found 300,000 fewer young smokers as a result of the campaign.
It certainly has a winning formula: grassroots activism combined with modern marketing. “They looked at their constituents and asked, ‘Why do kids smoke?'” says Sharyn Sutton, PhD, a Washington, DC-based marketing specialist who worked as an adviser to the campaign. “Young people want to act like adults and rebel [against being told they’re kids]. The campaign channeled that rebellion against the tobacco industry.”
Billboards, commercials, and school presentations convey a unified message: The tobacco industry is trying to take advantage of children, but children have the power to fight back. In a memorable TV ad, which Lader describes as “one of the best,” teenagers walked into an actual office of Kool cigarette manufacturers to present the “Golden Hook” award for suggestive advertising. During a heated discussion, one executive said, “One hundred percent of people will die one day.”
In another TV spot, the teens walk into another office building, where they meet an actor playing a tobacco executive. Instead of arguing, the executive begins to sing and dance. A sample of the lyrics: “Just stay focused on the positive! Every eight seconds a smoker dies, it’s becoming routine. But let’s focus on the positive! Those seven seconds in between.”
In another ad, Florida drivers could see a billboard showing a man in his 60s, bald and wearing a bikini, lying on a beach and smoking a cigarette. The tagline: “No wonder tobacco executives hide behind sexy models.”
Such ads are pitch perfect, says McGoldrick, thanks in no small part to the teenagers who worked with the advertising companies. “The worst thing is adults lecturing children,” he says. “The next worst thing is adults trying to act like children.”
The success of the Truth campaign contrasts sharply with the youth-focused “anti-smoking” ads funded by tobacco companies, says McGoldrick. Such advertisements suggest that smoking is for adults, not children. For the typical middle or high school student who can’t wait to grow up, the message isn’t exactly a deterrent. “At best, these ads are ineffective,” she says. “At worst, they are intentionally counterproductive.”
The campaign has changed the way public health experts think about teen smoking, said Ursula Bauer, PhD, then a researcher with the Florida Department of Public Health. For the first time, said Bauer, now director of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, there is cause for optimism and a clear plan for success. “Hopefully, other states will start copying us,” she says, “and we can finally win this war.”
Interview with Ray Lader, a teenager who fought against tobacco
Interview with Danny McGoldrick, Vice President of Research for the National Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
Interview with Sharyn Sutton, PhD, a marketing specialist based in Washington, DC, who worked as an advisor to the anti-tobacco campaign.
Interview with Ursula Bauer, PhD, researcher at the Florida Department of Public Health
Bauer, UE et al. Changes in cigarette use and intentions among youth after implementation of a tobacco control program. Journal of the American Medical Association. vol. 284(6) 723-728.
Sly, DF et al. Florida’s “truth” anti-smoking media assessment: design, first-year results, and implications for planning future state media assessments. Tobacco control. spring, vol. 10:9-15.
Campaign for Tobacco Free Children. Staff. http://www.tobaccofreekids.org/organization/staff.shtml
American Legacy Foundation. Truth Fact Sheet. http://www.americanlegacy.org/PDF/truth_Fact_Sheet(1).pdf
Campaign for Tobacco Free Children. Tobacco use among youth. http://www.tobaccofreekids.org/research/factsheets/pdf/0002.pdf
American Lung Association. State of Tobacco Control.http://lungaction.org/reports/state-narrative06.tcl?geo_area_id=12