Stop-Smoking Campaign Is Far-Reaching
Students at risk of dropping out of high school work in a shelter for abused animals. Kids who might be tempted to join a street gang instead enter an art contest. East African immigrants read about health risks, in their native language. And adolescents
Behind these programs is one theme: the perils of tobacco.
The Virginia Tobacco Settlement Foundation, funded by proceeds from the $246 billion national litigation settlement against tobacco companies, has sprinkled thousands of dollars across Northern Virginia to fund antismoking programs aimed at young people.
Tying together the varied efforts is a statewide advertising campaign designed to grab young people's attention. Instead of harping on long-term health risks -- an approach that sometimes elicits nothing but teenage yawns -- the ads play up smoking as stupid and ugly. For example, one ad equates smoking with picking one's nose. Another notes that girls who smoke are more likely to grow facial hair.
"Nobody has been as specific as we have in terms of targeting youth," foundation spokesman Peter J. Sengenberger said. "In addition, few have taken the humorous approach like we have."
The Richmond-based foundation, set up in 1999, has received some $40 million for education, research and law enforcement efforts to cut all tobacco use among young people. To date, about $20.1 million has been disbursed, with an additional $22.2 million budgeted this year, said Marge White, deputy director of the foundation.
Since the wide-reaching settlement, some critics -- including its architect, Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore -- have accused states of misusing the proceeds to fill budget gaps and for other expenditures unrelated to tobacco-associated health problems.
In Virginia, 50 percent of the money goes to the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, which pays farmers to wean themselves from growing tobacco and promotes economic development in tobacco-growing regions. Forty percent goes into the general fund. The Virginia Tobacco Settlement Foundation receives 10 percent of the state's portion of the tobacco money.
"Our focus is entirely on youth tobacco-use prevention," Sengenberger said.
In Northern Virginia, the foundation has spent more than $1.6 million this year on 17 agencies, including the Ethiopian Community Development Council Inc. in Arlington County; Barrios Unidos, an anti-gang campaign in Falls Church; Prince William Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers; the Loudoun County Department of Parks and Recreation; and the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board.
The $97,464 grant to the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board this year is small compared with the agency's $806,000 budget for substance abuse prevention. But the money has had a powerfully disproportionate effect, said Laura Yager, director of the agency's prevention services.
"To be very frank, this funding has been a godsend to us," Yager said.
The grant helps fund a nationally recognized model program for at-risk high school students that encourages them to act as anti-drug advocates to elementary school children, work with abused animals and find healthier risk-taking outlets in activities such as kayaking. Research has shown that the program lowered substance abuse rates, raised grade-point averages and reduced discipline problems among participants, she said.
"It's not just a feel-good program," she said.
At George Mason University, researchers received $550,701 for animal studies to investigate the effects of nicotine on adolescents. James Madison University, in collaboration with local schools, received $193,399 to study whether concerted treatment of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) would also reduce the rate of smoking among them, said Steven Evans, an associate professor of psychology.
Tsehaye Teferra, president of the Ethiopian Council, said the money paid for workshops and antismoking brochures in Somali and Amharic, spoken in Ethiopia.
In Loudoun, park officials were able to hire Catherine "Katie" Henze as a tobacco prevention coordinator in June. With the 18-month grant of $113,773, she has been leading an after-school program of videos, games and other presentations for elementary and middle school students.
"I think we are definitely working to defray medical costs," Henze said. "It's not going to health care costs now, but I think it's a future thing."