When Big Tobacco agreed to pay out hundreds of billions of dollars in a settlement two years ago, it looked like the public interest finally had the upper hand. More than 99 percent of the $206 billion settlement went to 46 states to spend however they saw fit (some on antismoking efforts and much more on everything from debt reduction and college scholarships to road repairs and water mains). And 1 percent of the money ($1.5 billion) was earmarked for a national antismoking program run by the newly constituted American Legacy Foundation.
One percent is not much, but $1.5 billion still makes it the biggest antismoking campaign ever. The question is what approach to deploy for the campaign. There is the obvious smoking-is-bad-for-you approach, but its being bad for you is a large part of what makes it a popular expression of teenage rebellion. There's the smoking-is-not-cool approach, but it's hard to reverse decades of pro-smoking advertising dedicated to the opposite notion.
Then there's what may be the most effective tactic: exposing the tobacco industry as a liar scheming to make profits at the expense of national health. John Banzhaf, the executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, says ads focusing on the manipulativeness of Big Tobacco effectively harness the teenage impulse to rebel: Rather than smoking to defy their parents, kids don't smoke to defy the industry.
Interestingly, the most effective tobacco control programs--in California, Florida, and Massachusetts--all attack the industry to one degree or another. The flagship ad of the California effort depicts a meeting of tobacco executives plotting to get kids hooked on their product. It ends when one of them starts coughing and laughs, "We're not in this for our health."
But the American Legacy Foundation no longer may deploy this tactic effectively because the 1998 agreement outlaws "any personal attack on, or vilification of, any person (whether by name or business affiliation), company, or government agency, whether individually or collectively." Industry spokespeople characterize the prohibition on attacks as a matter of simple decency. But the ban has had the effect of expressly forbidding promulgation of the message that has been shown to be most effective at addressing the problem.
Antismoking advocates hoped that the vagueness of the language (what constitutes "vilification"?) and the prospect of more court battles would prevent tobacco companies from challenging hard-hitting ads. But in February, the American Legacy Foundation pulled two ads from its upcoming 48-ad campaign because industry lawyers and North Carolina's attorney general said they could "be fairly viewed as personally attacking or vilifying the tobacco companies." One of the ads showed the Philip Morris headquarters surrounded by hundreds of body bags. The other had an actor walking into the building with a suitcase labeled "lie detector."
As usual, the tobacco companies have the resources and the will to fight these battles; the public-interest groups don't. Once again, the tobacco industry managed to achieve a measure of control over all aspects of a program intended to control it. That wasn't how the biggest antismoking campaign in history was supposed to work.