'Truth' ads suffer from budget cuts
From months of negotiations, Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth recalls one hard-fought victory against Big Tobacco in particular.
Not only would companies pay $13 billion, they would include money for anti-smoking campaigns and relinquish control over what anti-smoking ads in Florida could say.
The result has been the edgy "Truth" campaign that involves teenagers, ridicules Big Tobacco and is credited with helping to reduce teen smoking since 1998.
"[The ads] turned out to be so effective that when the other states negotiated their deals, the companies would not give them that paragraph," Butterworth said.
That's why Butterworth is especially disappointed the Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush trimmed $7 million in tobacco prevention money amid this year's budget crunch.
The cut decreases what was a $61 million-a-year program four years ago to $29.4 million this year -- a level critics say will mean fewer TV ads and student projects, and more smoking.
In all, Florida -- like most other states -- is spending less than 5 percent of settlement money on tobacco prevention. The National Conference of State Legislatures found all states spent about 30 percent of the total $206 billion tobacco settlement on any health-related services.
Nonetheless, a state Health Department survey two years after Florida began its prevention program in 1998 found significant successes. Smoking decreased 40 percent among middle-schoolers and 18 percent among high school students.
Even as the Legislature was in special session, trying to decide on budget cuts, another Health Department survey showed that declines in teen smoking were leveling off.
The new budget through June will contain $2 million less for TV ads; $2.2 million less for education; and $2.6 million less for partnership and youth development.
The budget would shift the money to other health programs slated to take multimillion-dollar cuts.
The tobacco cuts will stagger a grass-roots program that involves hundreds of students in 16 Duval County schools, county Tobacco Prevention Coordinator Robert Woods said.
"It's stupid," Woods said. "It's been so effective."
With about $130,000 a year, Woods and one other employee organize art projects, smoke-free days, a Web site, cable-access TV programs, trade-show booths and trips to an annual statewide teen summit.
Florida has done more in three years to discourage smoking than Woods could have imagined during the 15 previous years he worked in tobacco prevention, he said.
"We're just beginning to convince kids that it is not cool to smoke," Woods said. "And that's not easy."
What has made Florida's program different is the involvement of teens, designing and delivering the message with the support of adults.
The state health survey that found smoking down among teens also showed that a vast majority of students recognized and knew about the "Truth" campaign.
Woods said the cuts will likely eliminate his ability to reward students with a trip to the annual teen summit, where the "Truth" concept was born.
The summit made members of the group Students Working Against Tobacco feel as though they were part of something big and important, Woods said.
"What are these kids that have been part of this for three or four years going to think now?" Woods said. "They are going to think the adults walked out on us."
Debra Bodenstine, who heads the state Health Department's tobacco division, called cuts unavoidable. The Legislature needed to close a $1.3 billion budget gap from a slumping economy after Sept. 11.
The state hopes it can find "partners" to help fund prevention programs and that it can maintain decreased levels in teen smoking, Bodenstine said.
"We're going to try to do more with less," she said.
Susan Glickman of the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said Florida is transforming from a model program to a dismantling one.
"The state itself said its program saved $1 billion in health costs from less smoking," Glickman said. "This is very short-sighted on the state's part."
Butterworth, who led the legal fight against tobacco companies with the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, said the cuts will probably hurt the effort.
"It disappoints a lot of us. We knew it would work, and it was working," Butterworth said. "What is going to happen is more teenagers will start smoking."
Smoking causes pain and anguish for individuals and their loved ones, he said.
"From strictly a cold, financial standpoint, it makes no sense economically," Butterworth said, referring to the cuts. "It's going to cost us more to take care of people who get sick from smoking than it would to fund these programs in the first place."