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Anti-Smoking Campaign at Issue

Tobacco firms are urged to keep funding ads aimed at youths. They say their duty is done.

March 17, 2004|Jon Marino | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Tobacco companies must not ignore their responsibilities by failing to fund an anti-smoking campaign aimed at young people, former government health experts and state attorneys general said Tuesday.

By withholding financial support, said Joseph A. Califano Jr., secretary of Health, Education and Welfare during the Carter administration, "the tobacco companies condemn millions of children and teens to premature death and disability." He spoke at a news conference announcing a petition drive to urge the industry to continue its support of the Truth campaign, which targets children ages 12 to 17 with stark, fast-moving anti-smoking advertisements.

Under terms of a $206-billion settlement reached in 1998 between the nation's four largest tobacco companies and attorneys general in 46 states, the firms are to provide $300 million a year to the American Legacy Foundation -- a Washington-based public health organization created by the settlement -- for as long as they hold a 99.05% share of the cigarette market. The foundation sponsors smoking prevention and education programs, including the Truth campaign.

But in 2003, the market share of Philip Morris, Lorillard, R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson fell below 99.05%, and the companies have cut off the funding. The firms hold between 92% and 93% of the market; discount manufacturers that began operations after the settlement hold the remaining share.

"We never anticipated that their market share would fall as it has," Connecticut Atty. Gen. Richard Blumenthal said. "We don't want to say it's a loophole, because we knew it was there."

However, state officials and health experts argued that in an informal agreement at the time of the settlement, the companies agreed to continue to educate children on the dangers of smoking.

The tobacco companies see it differently. "We have fulfilled our financial obligation," said Carol Crosslin, a spokeswoman for R.J. Reynolds. "We are not going to make additional payments."

The move by the companies spurred all former U.S. health secretaries, surgeons general and directors of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from as far back as the Johnson administration to form a coalition, the Citizens' Commission to Protect the Truth. At the news conference, commission members decried what they called the companies' failure to live up to the responsibilities of the informal agreement.

"We cannot let Big Tobacco destroy the most effective media campaign we have to curb smoking by children and teens," said Califano, the commission's chairman.

The American Legacy Foundation said the campaign was responsible for reducing smoking among high school students by almost 25% in the two years since it began. The commission is seeking 1 million signatures for its online petition. When asked if the effort to return funding to the anti-smoking campaign might be undermined by the new Small Steps campaign, a Health and Human Services-led crusade against obesity, Califano said: "I don't think nicotine addiction will take a back seat to anything. Smoking still remains public health enemy No. 1."

Small Steps, which began last week, relies on pro bono work from advertising agencies and donations of ad space and air time by print and broadcast media networks. Califano said the commission would not seek such avenues.

The reason for that, he said, is that the commission refuses to pursue pro bono work from advertising agencies that "are controlled by tobacco companies."

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