Foes of teen smoking hope Hunt will prove strong ally
Less than four years ago, an angry Gov. Jim Hunt summoned the news media to a Pitt County tobacco field to rail against proposed federal rules intended to curb teenage smoking. He said the rules would ruin the state's leaf growers.
Today, the Hunt administration has called about 800 teenagers, school officials and others to Charlotte for a two-day "Governor's Summit to Prevent Teen Tobacco Use." The goal is to develop anti-smoking strategies for state agencies and local communities.
So where is Jim Hunt on teen smoking?
Health advocates hope he has turned a corner late in his tenure as governor and now sees the dangers of tobacco use more fully. But some remain skeptical and say the real tests of Hunt's stance lie beyond the summit.
North Carolina has historically invested very little of its own money in public-education campaigns and other anti-smoking initiatives geared to teens. But that could soon change, depending on how the state decides to use its share of the $4.6 billion national tobacco settlement.
"This conference is a giant step forward, but the real measure will be where we go from here," said Deborah Bryan, director of programs and government relations with the American Lung Association of North Carolina.
In an interview this week, Hunt didn't mince words about why he has called the summit: "I want to be very clear about this. I would like for there not to be one single teenager in North Carolina who smokes, and I want us to work as hard as we can to prevent cigarettes from being sold to them and to convince them not to use them."
Hunt, a Democrat who leaves office next January, acknowledged that he "probably could have done more" to get that message across. "I want to do more," he said. "I plan to do more this year."
In an attempt to draw attention to the issue, Hunt established a new job Thursday, a chief adviser on teen tobacco policy, and filled it with a longtime public health worker, Jim D. Martin.
Health advocates say the need to spread the message is greater than ever. New figures that will be formally released at the conference show that more than 38 percent of North Carolina high school students use tobacco products.
The numbers reinforce earlier studies showing teen smoking on the rise. A report last summer by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the high school smoking rate had jumped 22 percent over six years.
Dr. Adam Goldstein, an assistant professor in the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert on teen smoking, said Hunt, like many people, appears to have been swayed by those figures.
"I think he was surprised at the extent of the problem," Goldstein said. "I think he's sincere in his commitment, and I give him credit for stepping forward. ... [The summit] is the biggest thing that's happened in North Carolina for tobacco control. It's likely to help reduce teen tobacco use, which will ultimately cut down tobacco sales."
Goldstein said Hunt also displayed commitment to the issue recently when he helped North Carolina secure a $1.9 million grant to set up four regional centers that will focus on preventing teen smoking. Without Hunt's involvement, Goldstein said, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation would never have awarded North Carolina the money.
Others are more skeptical.
Citing a personal scheduling conflict, Hunt has scratched an appearance at the summit from his schedule and recruited Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker as a stand-in. Hunt will address the gathering by videotape and plans to meet with students later to discuss what was accomplished.
By contrast, he appointed himself chairman of a panel that is distributing nearly $2 billion in tobacco settlement funds to leaf growers and allotment holders -- and has regularly attended its meetings.
Hunt has also talked about the need to reduce teen smoking in the past -- with limited follow-up.
In 1995, he vigorously opposed new U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules on tobacco. In a letter to President Clinton, Hunt argued that instead of giving the FDA authority over tobacco, states could tackle teen smoking through "an educational campaign aimed at young people." He cited efforts in North Carolina to curb drunken driving and boost seat-belt usage.
Since then, the state has not launched any public-awareness campaign of that magnitude.
"We wouldn't have such an extensive problem today if we had been doing that kind of prevention over this time," said Bryan, the American Lung Association official.
Last year, the state spent about $2.5 million trying to curb teen tobacco use. Much of the money was spent trying to help smokers quit, and monitoring convenience stores to see whether they sell tobacco to minors.
Most of that money came from the federal government and nonprofit organizations. North Carolina did spend $11,500 to participate in a federal smoking-cessation drug program. By contrast, the CDC report estimated that North Carolina would need to spend more than $43 million a year to have an effective prevention program.
Some states -- including Arizona, California, Florida and Massachusetts -- have invested far more of their taxpayers' money in efforts to limit teen smoking. Most collect an excise tax on tobacco products to raise the money, Goldstein said. But such a tax here, he added, would be a very hard sell politically.
Hunt said he wants some of the national tobacco settlement money earmarked for reducing teen smoking, but he has not committed to an amount.
Hunt administration officials say their clearest success on teen smoking has been cracking down on store owners who sell to minors. The percentage of successful purchases by undercover teen buyers dropped from 44.9 percent in 1997 to 25 percent last year.
But those efforts alone have not stemmed the rising tide of teenage smokers. "Controlling access is just a piece of the problem," Bryan said.
An episode last spring renewed skepticism about Hunt's commitment to reducing teen smoking. The governor tried to water down a message on billboards across the state.
As part of the national settlement, tobacco companies agreed to turn over their billboards to anti-smoking campaigns for the duration of the leases. In North Carolina, officials picked several images of children with listings of milestones, such as "first bicycle 6 yrs, first turtle 7 yrs, first cigarette 11 yrs."
After reviewing the designs, Hunt ordered the deletion of the slogan "It's time we made smoking history." Because of a printing error, the slogan wound up appearing on most of the signs, anyway.
"I want adults to have the right to make up their own minds," Hunt said in the interview this week. "We have a lot of liberties in this country, to own firearms, you know, but that doesn't mean kids ought to be doing it. People choose to eat a lot of fatty foods and things like that, but we don't want kids doing it."
Hunt said his views on teen smoking are consistent with his upbringing. "I was taught not to smoke by my mother and daddy," he said. " ... None of my children smoke. None of my grandchildren smoke."
Asked what advice he would give a grandchild starting the habit, Hunt said: "I'd tell them it's not cool, that it will hurt your health and that you don't need to do it to be popular."