Commentary: Is Big Tobacco's Antismoking Push A Smokescreen?

Some people might think that Big Tobacco was smoking something pretty strong when it offered to fund massive advertising to discourage underage smoking. They would be wrong.

Sure, the campaigns are aimed at scaring future smokers off. But Big Tobacco realizes that such efforts to brainwash rebellious teens are very likely to fail. They know, for example, that underage smokers mimic young adults, who can smoke legally beginning at age 18. When 14-year-olds see Leonardo DiCaprio lighting up on screen, millions spent on antismoking messages go up in smoke.

Small wonder, then, that in all the state lawsuits the industry has settled, it has expressly limited antitobacco programs to underage smokers. "The tobacco industry has done a great job of snookering everyone into saying, `Just let's stop kids from smoking.' To the extent any program is limited to youth, it will fail," says Stanton A. Glantz, an antismoking activist.

To stack the deck further, when the industry settled in Florida, which kicks off the first statewide teen-antismoking campaign at the end of March, it limited the campaign to 24 months--not much time to change the attitude of an entire generation. Florida is seeking an extension.

Will anything stop teens from starting? Appeals aimed at getting in-the-moment youths to consider long-term health risks are largely futile. Pocketbook arguments are ineffectual, too. In their early teens, young smokers consume relatively little--maybe a pack a week. So the price increase, unless it's sudden and massive, is an unlikely deterrent. As John P. Pierce, head of cancer prevention at the University of California at San Diego, points out, a proposed $1.50 per pack federal tax would cost teens far less per week than they spend on one movie. "If kids were that price-sensitive, they'd all be smoking generics, but they're all smoking Marlboros," he says.

ANTI-AUTHORITY. Two main messages work with teens, according to a study of antismoking campaigns in California, Massachusetts, and other states by Glantz in this month's Journal of the American Medical Assn. Ads portraying the tobacco industry as deceitful and manipulative resonate with teens already inclined to suspect authority figures. And ads that focus on the dangers of secondhand smoke can arouse a sense of injustice.

Florida will test those themes, along with others, when it convenes a youth summit on Mar. 29. "A lot of states are looking to Florida," says Gary T. Rudman, president of marketing firm Teen-Age Research Unlimited. "There's a lot of pressure on them to do it right." And a pile of odds stacked against them.

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