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Dossier D.C.: Smoke Screen

Is the tobacco companies’ settlement programmed for failure?
Picture it: kids in ski masks mouthing off at big tobacco. a rebellious group of teenagers-smokers, nonsmokers, skateboarders and ska heads-interrogates a cigarette maker about why the company is trying to kill children. The youthful avengers are just a notch away from the civil disobedience of Act Up, calling themselves “The Rage.” And they’ve fired up Florida, which was wowed by the work, courtesy of Crispin Porter & Bogusky, a creative shop in Miami that won the $70 million anti-tobacco pilot program.
But here’s the rub: Florida, which received $200 million from tobacco manufacturers to spend on anti-tobacco ads, education and enforcement, has less than 17 months under the settlement to spend the money. If the shop doesn’t make inroads against youth smoking
ing in that time, CP&B could lose the account-and the state legislature would likely refuse to fund the program when the tobacco money runs out.
And that up-in-smoke scenario is just what Big Tobacco wants, cynics say. Florida government officials, tobacco foes and sources close to the ad review process claim that tobacco manufacturers deliberately negotiated a two-year time limit on the $70 million counteradvertising effort last June. Why? They know the time frame is too short for an effective social-marketing campaign, which experts insist takes three to five years. Just ask the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington, D.C. It’s spending five years and a cool billion to stop the rising tide of teen drug abuse.
To complicate matters, Florida has lost time with legal wrangling and a lengthy review process. “The tobacco companies will try and split us every way they can,” says Peter Mitchell, the government official in charge of Florida’s pilot program. “We finally have some money, but we’re the underdogs in this battle.” Mitchell says the tobacco companies required the stipulation that the money be used in “no more than” two years-a lethal blow to the state’s efforts.
“The two-year time limit is an insidious little plot on the behalf of tobacco companies,” says one member of the selection committee that chose CP&B. “It doesn’t help that Florida didn’t do anything [about getting an agency] for four months.”
The success or failure of Florida’s initiative will have a significant impact on the 36 other states negotiating with the industry as well as the national settlement now winding its way through Congress. A recent tobacco bill introduced by Senate Democrats, and based on that settlement, includes a provision for a $500 million annual counterad campaign to be paid for by a cigarette tax. In essence, states that made settlements will keep their budgets, and states that haven’t will be compelled to piggyback on the $500 million if passed.
Are tobacco companies trying to set up programs that fail? “The industry standard is to choke these states with money and tell them they have to spend it in a limited amount of time,” explains Stanton Glantz, a University of California, San Francisco, professor of medicine and a tobacco control expert. “There’s just enough time to get these programs going and crash.”
Glantz also says the industry strategy is to limit the focus of anti-tobacco efforts to kids, a built-in self-destruct button. “They know if you don’t do anything about adult smoking, you can’t do anything about kids,” he adds grimly.
Former tobacco marketers, however, say critics are blowing smoke. They scoff at the idea that tobacco companies are trying to dull the impact of counteradvertising by imposing time limits or influencing the way money is spent. “This sounds like another tobacco conspiracy theory,” says Bill Youngclaus, president of Rockett, Burkhead, Lewis & Winslow in Raleigh, N.C. Youngclaus, formerly involved with the advertising of several tobacco companies, believes “they’re not that savvy.”
“Tobacco companies are conducting the most massive commitment ever by an industry not to use their product,” adds Scott Williams, a tobacco industry spokesman for the proposed national settlement. “The industry is sincere in trying to change the way it does business in this country and has put that commitment in writing.” Williams also notes that Florida negotiators did not have problems with the time limit when the deal went down.
The good news for Florida is that Texas just settled its lawsuit against tobacco makers with a better time frame for its $200 million counteradvertising efforts. In that settlement, the ad money must be used in “no less than” two years. And, since Florida has a “most-favored nation” clause in its settlement, the state can ask the court to invoke the Texas time frame. “If it was the industry’s intent to make things difficult, the Texas settlement defeated them,” says Michelle Anchors, an attorney in Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles’ office.
Skeptics remain unconvinced. They say Big Tobacco will find ways to sabotage the states’ counteradvertising efforts. If that sounds overly paranoid, consider this internal memo from the Tobacco Institute, which outlined plans to eliminate funding for California’s anti-smoking push in the early ’90s.
Written in 1990, the memo states the institute should “cooperate with minority, business and other groups in developing opposition to the program; convince Health Services Director Kizer to pull or modify the current advertisements; and encourage the governor to intercede against the campaign.”
Eerily, the anti-tobacco effort, called Proposition 99, was suspended by California Gov. Pete Wilson in 1992. Most telling, the grassroots opposition to Prop. 99 followed the Tobacco Institute’s lobbying strategy. What the tobacco companies did so successfully in California-and in Florida and Texas to a lesser extent-was to get anti-tobacco activists, doctors and lawyers to fight over funding. When asked about its policies, the Tobacco Institute declined comment. Williams said that under the proposed national settlement, the Tobacco Institute would be disbanded.
At present, it remains unclear whether the time limit is Florida’s albatross. “We’re going to hit hard and hit fast,” promises Anchors, though it is clear the state will face scrutiny and naysayers as it debuts its pilot program. CP&B will attend a youth tobacco summit this month where they’ll create ads with the help of kids from grades 7 through 11. “We’ll be shooting a documentary there,” says Alex Bogusky, creative director at CP&B. The agency also wants the kids to start a magazine called The Rage.
“It’s the kind of campaign that’s going to create a buzz,” says one observer. “If it gets any kind of national platform, they should be prepared for some heat.” Other states have already inquired about “The Rage,” a move its creators hope points to a national momentum.
“The First Amendment dictates that more is better than less. Any counter-advertising should be ongoing, with as much frequency and duration as tobacco advertising,” says John Fithian, an advertising lawyer with the Washington, D.C.-based Freedom to Advertise Coalition. “The answer to a controversial issue like tobacco is that both sides need to be fully aired.” Watch for the fireworks.