End of anti-tobacco program dreaded
Josh Reuter didn't mince words as he showed an old Flintstones cartoon clip to Aurora Ortiz's sixth-grade class in St. Paul on Wednesday.
When Barney Rubble pulled out a pack of Winston cigarettes, the class groaned.
"Pretty sick, huh?" Reuter asked the students at the Adams Spanish Immersion Magnet School. "Who do you think they want to use their product?"
"Kids," the class replied.
That's just what Reuter likes to hear as a field operative for Target Market, the brash anti-tobacco campaign that's won credit for helping to cut Minnesota's teenage smoking rates.
But now, Target Market is slated to disappear under Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget proposal, which would eliminate the $446 million tobacco endowment that pays for it.
And experts warn that without the program and its multimillion-dollar advertising campaign, teenage smoking rates could start to rise again.
"The next generation is just waiting to become addicted," said Matt Sones, of the office of smoking and health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "If that message is not there . . . rates of smoking will go up."
Pawlenty's health commissioner, Dianne Mandernach, admits there is a risk that teen smoking rates will rise. "I won't say they will -- they may," she said Wednesday.
Mandernach said Pawlenty's recommendation "does not indicate he was not concerned about this." She said the goal -- to cut teen smoking -- hasn't changed, but a "tough, tough choice had to be made."
On Tuesday, Pawlenty proposed using the tobacco endowment to help erase the state's $4.2 billion projected budget shortfall. However, his plan includes spending $3.4 million to combat youth smoking.
Target Market was born in the flush days after the 1998 settlement of the state's lawsuit against the tobacco industry, which promised $6.1 billion in payments over 25 years. In 1999, the state set aside $446 million for an endowment for smoking prevention programs. That generates about $25 million a year for Target Market and other programs.
The Health Department started Target Market on the advice of national experts to counter the effects of tobacco advertising on young people.
The program was inspired by an avant garde and successful campaign in Florida called the Truth campaign. Like it, Target Market was designed and run, in part, by and for teenagers. They adopted an irreverent style that mocked the tobacco industry and used music and humor to appeal to their peers.
Instead of harping on the dangers of smoking, they took aim at the industry's methods of luring teens to smoke. The program even took its name from secret documents -- revealed at trial -- that showed how cigarettemakers called teenagers their "target market."
The goal: to help teach kids to resist tobacco advertising.
One way is through a special classroom presentation that Target Market calls Manipulation 101, which the program's field organizers take on the road across the state.
"You know what? The tobacco industry actually pays to put their products in movies," Reuter told the surprised sixth-graders at Adams school who attended Manipulation 101 on Wednesday. As they watched a slide show, he showed how cigarette ads pop up in unexpected places.
The Target Market ads were just as stark. In one series, cameras followed Minnesota kids across the country as they confronted tobacco company executives. The videos became ads that mocked the industry and its leaders for refusing to respond to their concerns.
Survey of kids
How effective has Target Market been?
Last September the Health Department reported that tobacco use among high school students had dropped 11 percent since 2000, according to a survey of 11,500 kids.
"It's hard to pinpoint it to Target Market," said Chris Tholkes, the organization's acting executive director. "But we were one of the most visible components."
In fact, an evaluation found that its ad campaign "was very effective," said Connie Borgen, a tobacco control expert with the Health Department. It showed that 92 percent of the Minnesota teenagers surveyed knew about Target Market.
Still, it has its critics. Last year, Rep. Kevin Goodno, R-Moorhead, complained about a punk band that performed at a Target Market event. He circulated lyrics of songs that were laced with obscenities and references to binge drinking. Goodno is now Pawlenty's commissioner of the Department of Human Services.
But defenders say the group is reaching its target audience: kids who may start smoking.
"Target Market has a great reputation," said Lyndon Haviland, chief operating officer of the American Legacy Foundation, an anti-smoking group in Washington, D.C. "It's considered one of the cutting edge, hard-hitting youth programs."
But with the state in such a tight financial squeeze, health insurers and other groups will have to help pick up the slack, said commissioner Mandernach. "The pot of money we're able to bring to the table isn't there," she said.
But Dr. Marc Manley, a smoking-prevention expert at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, is doubtful.
"We've got a tough budget problem to solve, but we also have to be thinking about our kids' health and their future," he said. "I'm not optimistic that without public resources this problem will be solved."