Teen Crusaders | Health, medicine and fitness

Chris Woolston

Ray Lader used to be an ideal customer for the tobacco companies: he was 12 years old, loyal to his brand and addicted. But within a few years, he became a major thorn in the side. Like thousands of other Florida youth, Lader became an activist in the Truth Campaign, an unprecedented, highly successful program to curb teenage smoking.

Charger 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 Lader comforted died of lung cancer after the tragedy. When a spokeswoman for the Truth Campaign visited his class in the ninth grade, he was ready to listen. “She told us how the tobacco companies are manipulating us, and that made me furious,” he says. “That’s when I decided to join in. And I’ll never stop.”

Charger isn’t the only one getting excited about tobacco. Tens of thousands of Florida teens have joined the fray. They’ve formed SWAT teams — Students Working Against Tobacco — that visit primary and secondary schools. They have served in community groups that pushed for stricter rules. They have discussed issues with lawmakers. In a break from normal protocol, they’ve also worked as consultants for a multimillion-dollar media blitz with slick TV commercials and eye-catching billboards, many with the tagline “Our brand is the truth.”

As repeated surveys showed, the message came through loud and clear. “The campaign really resonated with kids,” said Danny McGoldrick, vice president of research for the National Tobacco-Free Kids Campaign. Smoking by high school students in Florida has fallen by 47 percent in three years. The drop among high school students was a whopping 31 percent. “That equates to about 75,000 children who… [aren’t] smoking,” McGoldrick says.

Despite this record, the Truth Campaign was attacked. Some funds for the program were reduced; others have been diverted to other social programs in the wake of state budget cuts. Anti-tobacco activists also suspect the tobacco industry had something to do with the cuts. Danny McGoldrick, for example, has his suspicions. Florida lawmakers 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 might disappear completely, anti-tobacco activists scored a major victory: Florida voters passed an amendment to the state constitution, requiring the government to give at least 15 percent (about $57 million) of tobacco settlement money annually. spend on anti-smoking programs, including at least five percent on education and mass media anti-marketing.

However, the 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. Tobacco activists hope to accelerate the decline with renewed funding for their campaigns.

The American Journal of Public Health published a report that directly attributed an overall 22 percent reduction in youth smoking to the Truth Campaign. Over a two-year period, the study found 300,000 fewer smokers among young people as a result of the campaign.

It certainly has a winning formula: grassroots activism combined with modern marketing. “They looked at their voters and asked, ‘Why do kids smoke?’” said Sharyn Sutton, PhD, a marketing specialist from Washington, DC who served as a consultant for the campaign. “Young people want to act like adults and rebel” [against being told they’re kids]† The campaign sparked that uprising against the tobacco industry.”

The billboards, commercials and school presentations convey a unified message: The tobacco industry tries to take advantage of children, but children have the power to fight back. In a memorable television ad, which Lader describes as “one of our best,” teens walked into an actual office of the Kool cigarette makers to present the “Golden Hook” award for evocative advertising. During a heated argument, one director even said, “One hundred percent of people will die someday.”

In another television spot, teenagers walk into another office building, where they are met by an actor who plays a tobacco manager. Instead of arguing, the director breaks into a song-and-dance number. An example of the lyrics: “Just stay focused on the positive! Every eight seconds a smoker dies — it becomes routine. But let’s stay focused on the positive! Those seven seconds in between.”

In another ad, drivers in Florida saw a billboard depicting a balding, bikini-clad 60-year-old man lying on a beach smoking a cigarette. The tagline: “No wonder tobacco managers hide behind sexy models.”

Ads like this set a perfect tone, McGoldrick says, thanks in large part to the teens who worked with the ad companies. “The worst part is that adults are teaching children,” he says. “The second worst thing is adults trying to act like children.”

The Truth campaign’s success stands in stark contrast to youth-targeted “anti-smoking” ads funded by tobacco companies, McGoldrick says. Such ads suggest that smoking is for adults, not children. For the typical high school or high school student who can’t wait to grow up, the message isn’t exactly a deterrent. “At best, these ads are ineffective,” he says. “At worst, they are intentionally counterproductive.”

The campaign 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 ever, Bauer, now director of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, said there is both cause for optimism and a clear blueprint for success. “Hopefully other states will start copying us,” she says, “and we can finally win this war.”

Interview with Ray Lader, teen who fought tobacco

Interview with Danny McGoldrick, Vice President of Research for the National Tobacco-Free Children Campaign

Interview with Sharyn Sutton, PhD, a Washington, DC marketing specialist who served as a consultant for the anti-tobacco campaign

Interview with Ursula Bauer, PhD, a researcher with the Florida Department of Public Health

Bauer, UE et al. Changes in youth cigarette use and intentions after implementation of a tobacco control program. Journal of the American Medical Association. full. 284(6) 723-728.

Sly, DF et al. The Florida “truth” anti-tobacco media review: design, freshman outcomes, and implications for planning future state media reviews. tobacco control. Spring, vol. 10:9-15.

Tobacco Free Children Campaign. Staff. http://www.tobaccofreekids.org/organization/staff.shtml

American Legacy Foundation. Fact Sheet. http://www.americanlegacy.org/PDF/truth_Fact_Sheet(1).pdf

Tobacco Free Children Campaign. Tobacco use among young people. 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

Originally published on consumer.healthday.com, part of the TownNews Content Exchange.

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