Dubious scientists, health educators, and politicians have for years said it’s impossible to stop young people from smoking. At least not quickly.
But Florida seems to have found a formula that can cut back youth smoking in record time.
Through a bold student-designed advertising campaign, new curricula, aggressive enforcement of anti-smoking laws aimed at minors, and an industry-led, nationwide 50-cents-per-pack increase in the price of cigarettes, the teenage-smoking rate here plummeted last year.
That drop, documented by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, is the first whiff of evidence that state-run smoking-prevention campaigns can help teenagers kick the habit or deter them from lighting up in the first place. Specifically, the study found that cigarette use among middle school students dropped 19 percent; smoking declined by eight percent among high schoolers.
In the past decade, with broader-focused anti-smoking campaigns in some states resulting in negligible declines in smoking rates among youths, anti-tobacco activists call Florida’s findings a notable achievement. (“After Anti-Smoking Effort, Fla. Youths Light Up Less,” April 14, 1999.)
But even after the program’s results were published by the CDC in April, Florida lawmakers cut funding from $70 million to $45 million, citing criticism that the advertising campaign is too aggressive in its attacks on the tobacco industry.
And proponents, who say their anti-smoking television ads are the cornerstone of the campaign’s success, are fearful that the funding cuts could kill their momentum.
Meanwhile, legislatures in six other states, which, like Florida, won millions in legal settlements with tobacco companies last year to cover the public-health costs associated with cigarette smoking, are looking at how best to spend their money.
‘From Kids Themselves’
Researchers contend that the critical ingredient in Florida’s Tobacco Control Program, launched in 1997 by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, is giving young people control.
“The ultimate solution to the problem of teen smoking has to come from kids themselves,” said Michael Eriksen, the director of the CDC’s office of smoking and health.
At a weekend summit here earlier this spring, 71 student board members of the Students Working Against Tobacco group, or SWAT, are running a strategy meeting.
“Will the group please come to order,” Judy Peacock, a 17-year-old junior from Miami, says into a microphone she wields like a saber, trying to quell the cacophony in a rented hall.
SWAT board members, who are elected by thousands of students statewide to serve as the youth wing of the program, meet three times a year to coordinate anti-smoking protests, brainstorm about recruitment tactics, and update their campaign against tobacco companies and their products.
The issue on the table this morning is how to put some spice into the existing marketing campaign with more direct--and news-generating--forms of activism.
“What stunts will attract media attention?” one student asks. Another suggests: “We should buy stock in tobacco companies so we can go to a stockholders’ meeting.” One other idea is to mail postage-paid subscription cards back to magazines that run tobacco advertisements so the publications would incur the mailing costs.
The teenagers gathered here say that simply warning their peers that smoking can endanger their health won’t prevent them from trying cigarettes. Cigarette packs already carry warnings that say smoking causes cancer, lung diseases, and emphysema, among other serious ailments.
“The health message has been out there,” Thomas Barker, a freshman from Pensacola, said at the meeting. “If it worked, why are kids still smoking?”
What Mr. Barker wants to see on cigarette packs is an acknowledgment that nicotine is addictive--something most of the major cigarette makers have consistently disputed.
Challenging what tobacco companies assert is the essence of the “Truth” campaign, the controversial, multimillion-dollar advertising blitz that has bombarded Florida for more than a year. One popular television spot features a trio of students calling the Lucky Strike cigarettes marketing manager and asking: “What exactly is so Lucky about Lucky Strike?” A billboard ad shows a model portraying a gray-haired male tobacco executive wearing a bikini and features wording about how the tobacco industry is lying about “the ugly health effects” of its products.
“If you look at the tobacco ads, they have the Marlboro Man promoting sex appeal and ruggedness,” said Tori Binitie, 18. “We aren’t stooping to their level; we are beating them at their own game.”
In the Classroom
Mr. Ericksen of the CDC said the Truth campaign is effective because it taps into students’ sense of fairness.
“The ads focus on the fact that they’re being lied to and manipulated,” he said. “Kids don’t like to be deceived.”
This same message is at the heart of the tobacco-control program’s new health curriculum, being taught now in hundreds of Florida classrooms.
At Hawk’s Rise Elementary School here, the 5th graders in Linda Abele’s class are sketching anti-smoking poster ads at a low Formica-top table.
“Smoking is nasty. It makes your clothes smell and your breath stink,” says Caroline Link, 11, who is scrawling a picture of a dead Joe Camel. The cartoonlike character previously used in ads for Camel cigarettes has long drawn fire from educators and anti-smoking activists, who say it targets children.
The slogan beneath the prostrate camel reads: “Be Smart, Never Start.”
In the next room, students are using a computerized lesson called “Science, Tobacco, and You” that focuses on the dangers of smoking. With an electronic clock running, students surf the site to find answers to such questions as “How does smoking affect the nervous system?” The answer: “Smoking makes it hard to concentrate.”
“When my dad was young, no one told him it was unhealthy,” Ms. Abele said to students at the end of class. “It’s your job to convince others that smoking pollutes your body.”
Turning to the Law
While Ms. Abele instructs students in the classroom, Lt. Rick Mills of the Florida Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco is busy educating teenagers on the street.
In a special operation that was launched as part of the tobacco-control program, bureau officers have doubled their patrols of retailers, looking for those that illegally sell cigarettes to children younger than 18.
On a recent afternoon here, 15-year-old Meghan Frohock stepped out of an unmarked police car and into a minimart at a gasoline station. A few minutes later she emerged with a $3.20 pack of Newports and a smile on her face.
“Busted,” Mr. Mills said as he and four other officers headed for the packed convenience store to ticket the cashier. The clerk, charged with a second-degree misdemeanor for selling a tobacco product to a minor, could be fined up to $500.
The citations are a deterrent, Mr. Mills said. The periodic sweeps--officers visited 64 retailers and made 14 arrests in one month recently--have inched up the compliance rate in Tallahassee to 82 percent.
Police here and across Florida also have beefed up efforts to ticket underage smokers. Smokers younger than 18 can be issued $25 tickets.
“There’s one puffing right there,” Ken Townsend, a bureau officer, says on a recent day as he screeches to a stop in front of a student walking to school.
But Joshua Hunnewell, a junior at Leon High School here, is 18 and is old enough to smoke.
Mr. Hunnewell, who has been smoking more than a pack a day since he was 15 and estimates he spends up to $2,000 a year on cigarettes, said he thinks issuing citations to young smokers won’t keep a single child from starting to smoke. “This will not stop anyone. A lot of my classmates think it’s stupid,” he said of the tickets.
But Florida lawmakers seem to have more faith in this tactic and retained the appropriation for enforcement of tobacco laws.
“You can have all the advertising you want, but if you don’t enforce the laws, they aren’t worth the paper they’re written on,” said state Rep. Kenneth P. Pruitt. Mr. Pruitt, a Republican who serves on the House appropriations committee, backed the final budget for the tobacco-control program, which slashed the marketing budget from $26 million to $12 million this year.
The cut likely will scale down the number of Truth campaign spots, which suits Mr. Pruitt fine.
“These kids are mocking people in the tobacco industry who have played by the rules their whole lives, and who have not broken any laws,” Mr. Pruitt said at the state Capitol before the final vote in April. “If one of my kids ever acted like that, they’d be in big trouble.”
Republican Debby P. Sanderson, who is the chairwoman of the House health committee and who also voted for the budget cut, added that one year’s research, however promising, was not enough to prove that the state’s program really works.
“I just want to make sure when we have competing interests in health care that we are spending the money wisely,” she said.
While the cuts disappointed some of the SWAT leaders meeting here, many say they won’t be deterred. Jared Perez, a senior from the Tampa area and one of the originators of the media campaign, was planning to hit the lecture circuit after graduation to spread the Truth campaign’s message.
The poised 18-year-old already has a date lined up to speak at a gathering of more than 30 state health leaders this month in New Jersey. “I don’t mean to sound like a zealot, but this is like a war,” Mr. Perez said.
A version of this article appeared in the June 23, 1999 edition of Education Week as Florida’s Four-Pronged Attack on Teen Smoking Pays Off