Controversy Over Aggressive New Anti-Smoking Campaign Launched by the American Legacy Foundation

NPR Transcript on American Legacy Foundation
This is NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
Date: February 16, 2000, Wednesday
By Ira Teinowitz

An aggressive new anti-smoking campaign is being scaled back just a week after it was launched. The ads were financed by cigarette makers as part of a massive 1998 legal settlement with 46 states. But now tobacco companies are complaining these first ads go too far. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

After more than a year in the making, the American Legacy Foundation launched the nation's largest anti-smoking campaign last week with a Web site and television ads that take aim at cigarette companies. Initially, there were four ads running during television and cable programs that are popular with teens, such as "South Park" and extreme sports shows. This one features teens unloading body bags in front of tobacco giant Philip Morris' New York headquarters.

(Excerpt from anti-smoking ad)
Unidentified Teen #1: Excuse me! Excuse me! We hate to bother you, but we've got a question.

Unidentified Woman: Excuse me!

Unidentified Teen #1: Do you know how many people tobacco kills every day?

Unidentified Teen #2: You know what? We're going to leave this here for you so you can see what 1,200 people actually look like.

(End of excerpt)

ELLIOTT: But this week, the foundation pulled this and another hard-hitting spot in what's called The Truth campaign. Neither of the ads mentions Philip Morris (PH) directly, and its employees have been blurred out of the picture. Still, the nation's largest cigarette maker is critical of the ads and the whole approach of the anti-smoking message, according to spokesman Mike File, PH.

Mr. MIKE FILE (Spokesman, Philip Morris): With a couple of ads in particular, and with their campaign, we're very disappointed in the American Legacy Foundation campaign.

ELLIOTT: The foundation was created by the Master Settlement Agreement reached between the tobacco industry and state attorneys general in November of 1998. The industry agreed to pay one and a half billion dollars over five years to fund a public education program on the health effects and social costs of smoking.

But the agreement also prohibits the foundation from producing ads that vilify tobacco companies or their executives. File says The Truth campaign is not in-line with the settlement.

Mr. FILE: In our opinion, the ads and the campaign are inconsistent with their purpose and with our own commitment to the letter and spirit of the Master Settlement Agreement.

ELLIOTT: File declined to say what action the company might take. He says they are seriously considering all of their options. Those options could include taking the foundation to court or trying to pull its funding. But such measure may not be necessary now that the foundation's board of directors has decided to stop running the most controversial ads. Washington state Attorney General Christine Gregoire chairs the board.

Ms. CHRISTINE GREGOIRE (Attorney General, Washington State): Those two ads had been met with considerable criticism. And we, as a board, really do not want to enmesh ourselves in criticism over one or two ads. We want to get on with the agenda, our goal, which is to stop teens from smoking.

ELLIOTT: Gregoire says criticism of the ads came from many fronts, including network executives and attorneys general who said they were in bad taste and not consistent with the tobacco settlement. She says the controversy was holding the campaign back and that's why the ads were pulled, not because of pressure from the tobacco industry.

Teens who helped develop the campaign say they're frustrated and bewildered by the controversy. Nineteen-year-old Jared Perez of Tallahassee is a youth spokesman for The Truth campaign.

Mr. JARED PEREZ (Spokesman, The Truth Campaign): Funny to hear that type of criticism, calling our ads over the top or morbid or some of the other things that have been mentioned in the press, because if killing over three million people every year around the world is not over the top and morbid, I don't know what is.

ELLIOTT: Perez says the graphic nature of the ads helps get across an important health message to teens.

Mr. PEREZ: You just talk about numbers or deaths or things like that, it becomes abstract. It's too far away for a young person to comprehend. Their mortality is 40, 50, 60 years down the road. Whereas if you line up 1,200 body bags on a busy New York street and show them what that looks like, it becomes much more relevant.

ELLIOTT: Perez used to work for Florida's anti-smoking campaign, also called Truth. The new national effort is modeled after the Florida program, which brought down youth smoking rates in its first year but was met with controversy because of its confrontational approach.

Like the Florida program, the American Legacy Foundation wants to create a youth-driven anti-tobacco movement through advertising and special events that take The Truth message to places where teens hang out. The foundation has a $ 185-million advertising budget this year, the most money every dedicated to a national anti-smoking effort. Dr. Cheryl Healton, a Columbia University public health professor, is president and CEO of the American Legacy Foundation.

Dr. CHERYL HEALTON (President & CEO, American Legacy Foundation): Well, I think it is one of the largest and broadest social marketing campaigns ever undertaken, and I think it has a real possibility of having an impact.

ELLIOTT: The foundation is still running two ads that parody soft drink and sneaker commercials. In each of the spots, one of the three teens using the spoof product unexpectedly explodes.

(Excerpt from anti-smoking ad)
Unidentified Man #1: With 100 times the carbonation of ordinary soft drinks, Splode is intense! So if you think you can handle the pressure, grab a Splode and obliterate your thirst.

(Soundbite of explosion)

(End of excerpt)

ELLIOTT: The tag line is, 'Only one product actually kills a third of people who use it: tobacco.'

Foundation officers insist the campaign will keep its edge, but tobacco control advocates say avoiding controversy won't achieve results with young people. Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore has developed a similar campaign with his state's tobacco settlement funds.

Mr. MIKE MOORE (Attorney General, Mississippi): There's no question that the kind of advertisement you need to do is the kind of advertisement you'd see on MTV or one of those programs. It's got to be over the top. I mean, it's got to be something that cuts through and breaks through everything else that's on the TV set. Otherwise, kids won't pay any attention to it at all.

ELLIOTT: Research shows ads that focus on the tobacco industry's behavior are effective, according to Dr. Stan Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco. Glantz says the American Legacy Foundation is on the wrong course.

Dr. STAN GLANTZ (Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco): The initial tone and the initial aggressiveness of these campaigns is crucially important, because it sets the tone for the whole campaign. And the message which is being sent right now is they want to run something safe, they don't want to risk the tobacco companies going after them.

ELLIOTT: Glantz says the countermarketing campaign faces an uphill battle anyway. Its $ 185 million budget pales in comparison to the $ 4 to $ 6 billion tobacco companies spend on marketing each year.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

source: Stan Glantz

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