Edgy, statewide ad campaign aims to reduce teen smoking
MORGANTOWN - Across the state, young West Virginians are seeing the first in a series of edgy, anti-smoking ads with a look and a feel that public health officials say is "more MTV, less Betty Crocker."
"I like it. It's weird-looking," said 16-year-old sophomore Chris Williams, studying the perils of tobacco during his sixth-period health class Wednesday at Morgantown High School.
The stark, black-and-white TV ads have a jittery, hand-held camera feel. They announce that dozens of teens fanned out across the state to test whether retailers limited cigarette sales to people over 18 as the law requires.
No one came back empty-handed.
"It's bad to know that teen-agers can go and buy cigarettes and not even show an ID - or show a fake ID and no one knows the difference," said Williams' classmate, 16-year-old Tessa Brookman. "Teens shouldn't be able to buy cigarettes."
But they do.
A recent survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 39 percent of West Virginia high schoolers smoke. About 26 percent of males between 15 and 19 use smokeless tobacco.
Research done for the ad campaign found that people who don't start smoking by age 21 are unlikely to start, said John Law, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
Tobacco companies for years have targeted young people, he said, so it's important to counter that marketing.
The ad campaign was carefully crafted so young people would pay attention, adopting an arresting style similar to the nationally aired ads by thetruth.com.
"It's more MTV and less Betty Crocker," Law said. "That's what young people are watching, so we were very careful to do that."
Print versions of the ads will run in newspapers across the state for four to six weeks.
The total cost for ads that appear between now and June 15 is about $350,000, paid for from the state's share of a national settlement with tobacco companies over smoking-related health care costs.
A second campaign will begin this fall.
"We're spending a good deal of money on this campaign, but it is dwarfed by the amount of money the tobacco companies are spending to get young people to use tobacco," Law said.
The ads were crafted by MBC Group of Charleston under a contract awarded last fall. Ads will be generated as needed and paid for by state or federal funding, depending on the topic.
Until now, public health ads have been handled piecemeal, Law said. The contract lets MBC craft similar-looking messages on topics across the DHHR spectrum, including teen pregnancy, adoption and even breast-feeding.
The tobacco campaign is the first big initiative and something that Gov. Bob Wise and the Legislature agreed was a priority. The DHHR also risked losing federal block grants if it didn't spend money on prevention.
"Plus, it's the right thing to do," Law said.
The ads are running now so the message gets out before children go on summer break.
Adam Bellman is a 16-year-old surrounded by a sister, mother and brothers who all smoke. Only he and his younger sister choose not to.
"They all want to stop," he said. "They just can't."
Morgantown High health teacher Maxine Arbogast spends two to three weeks a year discussing tobacco. Among her props is a glass jar of gooey brown tar, the amount that would coat a person's lungs in a year with a pack-a-day habit.
"The students need to understand they are being used by the tobacco companies to make money," she said. "The tobacco companies aren't thinking about their health."