WASHINGTON – A nationwide ad campaign funded largely by the tobacco industry has helped cut youth smoking rates, a study by a health journal estimates. But anti-smoking advocates say money for such campaigns is drying up.
The American Legacy Foundation's (search) "truth" campaign prevented about 300,000 youths from becoming smokers between 2000 and 2002, according to a study to be released Wednesday in the March edition of the American Journal of Public Health.
That's about 22 percent of the total decline in youth smoking over the period, the study found.
But the foundation, which operates an independent nationwide campaign against youth smoking, is running low on money at the same time state legislatures cut into the amount they spend on anti-smoking campaigns.
Tobacco companies agreed to pay into a fund that contributes to the "truth" campaign in 1998 when the industry reached a $246 billion legal settlement with the states. But the agreement allowed companies to stop paying after five years if their market share was below 99 percent.
With small manufacturers gaining a foothold in the market, tobacco giants have likely already made their last payment, said foundation president Cheryl Healton.
The public health journal study looked at surveys of 8th, 10th and 12th graders conducted annually between 1997 and 2002, measured their exposure to the campaign and accounted for factors like race, gender and income to determine the effect of the ads, which often feature teens publicly questioning tobacco companies.
The surveys showed 28 percent of teens smoked in 1997, and just 18 percent did in 2002, and the study credits the campaign with 22 percent of that drop. Researchers found the prevalence of teen smoking was falling before the campaign began, but the rate at which it fell increased dramatically after "truth" ads began.
"These truth campaign ads are the MTV of the public health world. They really get to these kids," said Joseph A. Califano Jr., President Carter's health secretary and chairman of Citizens' Commission to Protect the Truth (search), a group of former high-level health officials that advocates for programs designed to end youth smoking.
The foundation was not the only group trying to stop kids from lighting up. Some states launched efforts to curb youth smoking in the early 1990s, and others followed suit with their portions of the 1998 settlement.
However, state lawmakers are increasingly cutting into the money available for anti-smoking programs. Programs in Florida and Massachusetts that were once held up as national models saw their budgets slashed in recent years, and Mississippi's governor wants to use $20 million earmarked for an anti-tobacco group on the state Medicaid program.
Youth smoking is at a 28-year low, but campaign organizers said it might not stay that way without countering tobacco companies' consistent messages. In 2002, tobacco companies spent $12.5 billion to promote their products in the United States alone, Healton said.
By contrast, the foundation spent $58.9 million on the "truth" campaign last year, and gave another $37.8 million in grants.
"It's a David versus Goliath alchemy," Healton said. "In view of that, it's amazing we've had any impact."
The tobacco companies also pay for anti-smoking campaigns. Philip Morris USA (search), for example, has spent more than $600 million on youth smoking prevention efforts since 1998, including grants to schools and other groups that focus on youth development, said company spokeswoman Jennifer Grolisch.
Though Grolisch said the company has a "long-term commitment" to the effort, anti-smoking advocates said it's not enough to rely on cigarette makers.
"You can't rely on the tobacco industry to do this. They need children and teens to replace their dead and disabled smokers," Califano said. "Children are key to this industry."