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http://www.floridatoday.com/apps/pbcs.d ... 60317/1005

Teen anti-smoking campaigns still trail Big Tobacco

As the film version of author Christopher Buckley's 1995 tobacco-industry satire, "Thank You For Smoking," opens in theaters across the country, it might be tempting to dismiss the topic as a museum piece from the Clinton years.

After all, the tobacco CEOs disgraced themselves by lying under oath during Congressional hearings in 1994. The hip Joe Camel branding was retired under duress by RJ Reynolds in 1997. And Big Tobacco was forced to shell out several hundred billion dollars to 46 states for smoking-related damages as part of the Master Settlement Agreement of 1998.

Yet, last month, a nonprofit coalition led by Floridians for Youth Tobacco Education collected enough signatures for a ballot amendment in November that would require the Legislature to earmark 15 percent of its annual tobacco payoffs to education. That's because, according to Florida Department of Health statistics, Big Tobacco spent an estimated $1.2 billion on marketing in Florida last year. By contrast, Tallahassee appropriated a meager $1 million in 2005 (less than 1 percent of its annual tobacco residuals) to promote anti-smoking school programs for the state.

"It's really amazing, what they're doing to sell their products to youth," says Laura Corbin, tobacco prevention coordinator for the Brevard County Health Department.

"They've got candy-flavored smokeless tobacco now with flavors like mocha, peach and watermelon. RJ Reynolds introduced a whole new line of products for different seasons. They've got Winter, Mardi Gras, Berry Blast -- you look at the packaging and the flavors, and you know they're aiming for teens."

Corbin helps direct Florida's gutted but wildly successful teen smoking education program called Students Working Against Tobacco. Launched in 1998 with a $70 million Big Tobacco payout, and mindful of studies indicating 90 percent of all current smokers started in their teens, SWAT eschewed rote health-effects moralizing for a sharp new tactic -- confronting students with industry documents describing efforts to create new generations of nicotine addicts.

The results were dramatic. Fully funded, SWAT programs lowered smoking rates among middle-schoolers by 58 percent, and 37 percent for high school students.

But beginning in 2003, the Legislature compressed SWAT's downward funding slide into a virtual flatline, draining all but $1 million from its annual budget. The move coincided with the Florida State Board of Administration reinvesting state pension plans into tobacco stocks, which ended the divestment enacted under the late Gov. Lawton Chiles. Corbin says 100 SWAT staffers were laid off as a result, which means she coordinates school programs in 16 Central Florida counties.

"We do the best we can with advocacy education, but our hands are tied," Corbin says. "The youth have been incredible at stepping up to the plate, and the leadership skills they've gained far outweighs what we've invested in them."

Like Alan Brock, whose senior year at Wakulla High also marked SWAT's first year in the schools. Now a Florida State University alumnus, Brock is the North Florida field director for "Vote Yes on Amendment 4," the campaign to constitutionally mandate a more credible share of tobacco funds for education.

"(In high school), everybody knew tobacco was bad for you, that's not new. What SWAT did was switch the message, and that changed everything, because nobody had ever looked at the documents before," Brock says.

"When you see a (Philip Morris executive) statement like, 'We don't smoke it, we just sell it, and we reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the black and the stupid,' it gets your attention. It appeals to the rebellious nature of the student."

Steven Rose, a 2005 Melbourne High graduate, also has been leading volunteer efforts for Amendment 4, at the University of Florida. He was a high school sophomore when SWAT funding got gouged, but the message stayed with him.

"I initially went to the meetings for all the wrong reasons, because all my friends were going," recalls Rose, who now protests tobacco sponsorship of concerts and sporting events. "But I stayed for all the right reasons. I mean, this is a product that, when used correctly, will kill you."

A political science major who says he'd someday like to lobby for the American Cancer Society, Rose keeps an eye on Big Tobacco's product diversification, how they change names (from Philip Morris to Altria, for instance), and he monitors retail marketing.

"Go into a convenience store and ask yourself why they've got cigarette ads below the counter about eye level with a small child," he says. "And look at all the new brands of tropical- or fruity-flavored tobacco. They're making it like candy."

In Richmond, Va., Philip Morris USA spokesman Michael Neese says his company is actively engaged in youth smoking prevention, and does not carry smokeless tobacco products. Furthermore, he says $500 million of Morris' share of the Big Tobacco payments, "goes to retailing initiatives to put our products behind the counters."

Neese says its smoking-reduction programs must be working, because "in 1991, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 27.5 percent of high school kids were smokers, and in 2003, it was down to 21.9 percent -- those are the lowest points in a generation. We do not market our cigarettes to kids."

Nevertheless, Floridians for Youth Tobacco Education spokeswoman Cheryl Forchilli in Tampa says tobacco companies regard Florida as a "burgeoning market." In the absence of SWAT, she says, no wonder teen smoking rates are beginning to slow down.

"Florida's getting to be a younger state in many ways, particularly with ethnic minorities," Forchilli says. "Pick up a Latina magazine or whatever the Hispanic version of Cosmopolitan is and you'll see all these pretty, sexy young women smoking cigarettes. Tobacco companies are putting on concert series with popular Latino singers in areas where young Hispanics are strong."

Forchilli is optimistic about Amendment 4's chances in November. She said partners such as the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association resorted to Constitutional solutions last year only after failing to procure more education money during three consecutive lobbying sessions in Tallahassee.

"We needed 611,000 signatures, and we collected 860,000. It was an overwhelming response," she says. "I think it sends a strong message to the Legislature, that people want their kids to stay healthy."

Contact Cox at 242-3774 or bcox@flatoday.net

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