EDITORIAL: Anti-tobacco PR blitz can't go up in smoke

New evidence from the Florida Youth Tobacco Survey has shown a

significant slowing in the rate of teen smoking reduction in the last 12

months. Funnily enough that correlates rather well with a significant

reduction in the dollars made available by Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL) for the

anti-smoking campaigns. And, as this column was going to press, Bush and

his cohorts were in session considering further cuts in that budget.



The story is not restricted to Florida either. A National Conference of

State Legislatures study released last week found that 63.4% of the

$21.3 billion paid to the states so far by Big Tobacco is being

used to fund projects other than anti-smoking campaigns - bridges,

penitentiaries, tax rebates, water projects, debt payments, you name it,

it's being funded by Big Tobacco in a state near you. And all the

evidence suggests that the proportion of the settlement spent on these

projects is rising.



The states say the settlement terms don't restrict the way the money is

spent, and as the recession bites, local politicians think diverting

this cash has limited political liability compared to the results of

under-spending elsewhere. And there has been insufficient reaction from

the people in those states to persuade those politicians otherwise. So,

it would seem, money that was being effectively used by several PR firms

to reduce teen smoking - Rogers & Cowan, Porter Novelli, The Nixon

Group, to name three - is likely to slowly dry up.



What can these firms do about this? They must be careful not to be seen

as lobbying, as they are still working for the state governments that

they'd have to lobby. This isn't to say that they can't - and aren't

already - working in the background to give lobbying advice to those

state department of health officials who are trying to win bigger chunks

of the settlement money from their pay lords and masters.



One might think that the other obvious tactic would be a

naming-and-shaming campaign in local papers, highlighting those

politicians who are diverting funds away from anti-smoking campaigns

that were so clearly helping to cut the uptake of smoking among teens.

As our Media Round-Up (p. 12) suggests, local papers are very receptive

to localized tobacco stories, and this is a key local issue. However, a

quick headline search on Reuters revealed that literally thousands of

these sorts of stories have already appeared in the local papers in the

past months and clearly - beyond a few small objections from the more

knowledgeable readers of those papers - haven't prompted the sort swell

of grassroots outrage that might have stayed the budget-cutters'

axe.



However, the success of campaigns created and marshaled by the above PR

agencies to get kids involved in government relations campaigns - the

work of The Nixon Group in Wisconsin would be a particularly strong

example - would suggest that getting kids to protest these cuts might be

an effective strategy for getting adults, and even politicians, to sit

up and take notice.



What is definitely needed is for all the interested parties, from the

CDC and Children Opposed to Tobacco to the American Legacy Foundation

and American Cancer Society, to unite and pool their thoughts and

communications strategies to devise a nationwide campaign to combat the

cuts in spending.



It is too important not to at least try.



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