Cigarette Makers Take Anti-Smoking Ads Personally
Body bags. Dying rats. Dog urine.
These are some of the images used in state and nationwide anti-smoking commercials that are sounding a contentious theme. Rather than spotlighting the ill effects of cigarettes, the ads are focusing on the supposed evils of the tobacco industry.
The commercials, which run on youth-oriented television and radio stations, rotate every few months. Among the most vivid are ones that depict body bags piled up in front of the headquarters of Philip Morris, gasping rats to dramatize that cigarettes include the same ingredient â€” ammonia â€” as rat poison, and a dog walker offering to sell dog urine to tobacco companies because cigarettes contain urea.
Anti-smoking advocates and tobacco companies agree that the campaign has been highly effective. But while smoking-prevention groups say that such campaigns resonate, especially with teenagers, industry officials argue that in some cases they do little more than vilify cigarette companies and their employees.
The battle between these groups has intensified lately, largely because of the American Legacy Foundation, set up after the $206 billion master settlement four years ago between 46 states and the major tobacco companies.
As the foundation's campaigns have become ever more focused on cigarette makers, tobacco companies are fighting back. The Lorillard Tobacco Company, a unit of the Loews Corporation that makes brands like Newport and Kent, is suing the foundation in a North Carolina court. Other companies have used letters, phone calls and e-mail messages to make it known that they are not pleased.
"We need to communicate positive messages about why youth should not smoke," said Steven C. Watson, a Lorillard spokesman. "It's wrong to attack our company."
But anti-smoking advocates say attacking the industry is exactly the right thing to do.
"What we learned very early on is that `Please don't smoke; it's not good for your health' doesn't work for kids," said Colleen Stevens, a spokeswoman for the tobacco control section of California's Department of Health Services.
What works, she said, is telling teenagers "how the industry manipulates you."
Preventing teenagers from smoking has been the focus of intense campaigns because a vast majority of adults who smoke started when they were under 18.
Even though youth smoking has declined in recent years, health officials say anti-smoking advocates cannot afford to be complacent. The decline, experts agree, results from higher cigarette prices â€” brought about by price increases and state taxes â€” and the anti-tobacco programs.
States like California, Florida and Massachusetts had been financing tough anti-smoking campaigns for years. But it was the foundation, through its "truth" campaign, that took the anti-industry approach nationwide two years ago.
Past anti-tobacco ads "were very authoritarian â€” they said, `Don't smoke,' " said Jeff Hicks, the president of the Crispin, Porter & Bogusky advertising firm in Miami. But that message backfired, he said, because young people tend to do exactly what they are told not to.
"Smoking is not about cigarettes, but about rebellion," said Mr. Hicks, whose company has created many anti-tobacco ads for Florida and for the foundation.
"Kids know smoking is something your parents prefer you wouldn't do, so a cigarette is the ultimate statement of autonomy â€” `I'm willing to put my life in jeopardy.' "
Susan Moses, the deputy director of the Tobacco Project at the Harvard School of Public Health, said, "Kids need a common enemy, and kids hate more than anything to be lied to, and hate to be manipulated."
The "truth" campaign is doing just that, telling teenagers that if they smoke, they're playing into the hands of Big Tobacco.
Cheryl Healton, the foundation's chief executive, says that her group's campaign can be chiefly credited with the decline in teenage smoking â€” and that the tobacco companies' efforts have been largely ineffective.
Under the settlement, the foundation is financed by payments from the tobacco companies of $250 million in 1999 and about $300 million each year from 2000 to 2003.
Tobacco company officials argue that their own programs, like Philip Morris's "Think. Don't Smoke." and Lorillard's "Tobacco Is Whacko if You're a Teen," have contributed to the decline.
"We're not saying there's only one way that works, as they seem to claim," Mr. Watson of Lorillard said.