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Wednesday, Mar 5 1997
Smoke and Peerers
In the week of March 24, a new round of publicly financed anti-tobacco TV ads is due to break on California airwaves, the first in over two years. They're arriving even as the tobacco wars are heating up on several fronts. Last week, tobacco companies claimed victory when a federal District Court judge dismissed a historic suit by 11 California counties, including S.F., seeking compensation from tobacco companies for the costs of caring for stricken smokers. The judge left open the possibility of future legal action if the plaintiffs can prove tobacco caused the specific illnesses. And across the country, teen-agers took part in sting operations that the government publicized to mark the effective date of tougher new federal penalties for selling tobacco to minors.

Originally slated for the fall of 1995, the new anti-smoking ads stand to draw fire from one and possibly both sides of the tobacco divide; they will either be condemned for being too soft, or castigated as shrill propaganda.

No wonder the state Health Department postponed authorizing a new batch and is keeping these under tight wraps. The state has contractually forbidden Asher/Gould, the L.A. agency hired to create the campaign, from releasing any information about its work without the Health Department's written permission. The move was taken after an ad was leaked to anti-tobacco activists in 1995 before it had been approved for public viewing. State Health Department spokeswoman Lynda Frost explained the gag order last week by saying, "We have learned over the years that we don't want to tip our hat before we're ready." The 1995 incident was what "really got us thinking about that."

Frost declined to characterize the new ads, saying she was bound to silence, "just like Asher/Gould." However, she said they would continue to stress the same themes: among them, the danger of secondhand smoke and the damage caused to "our communities."

Ken August, Frost's subordinate, was a bit more specific. Asked if the ads would continue the traditional anti-tobacco-industry emphasis, he said, "That's always been a part of the campaign. I think you'll like these."

Anti-tobacco advertising is the most publicly visible component of Proposition 99, but any flap would be a mere skirmish compared to what has gone on since California voters approved the anti-smoking initiative 58 percent to 42 percent in 1988. By far the nastiest combat has been among the anti-tobacco interest groups who pushed the measure through in the first place.

The source of the conflict: how to divide the spoils from a 25-cent-a-pack surtax Prop. 99 added to the then-existing 10-cent tax on cigarettes.

As originally approved by voters, Prop. 99 stipulated that 20 percent of revenue raised by the surtax go to health education. The anti-tobacco ads are included in this fund. Fifty percent was divided among hospital and physician care for the poor and research on tobacco-related diseases; another five percent went to environmental programs and parks. The remaining 25 percent was unallocated.

For the first two years after Prop. 99 passed, things worked reasonably well. The tax was bringing in about $600 million a year in new money. There was so much to go around that an enterprising environmental activist grabbed 10 percent of the unallocated fund for the protection of mountain lions.

In the face of enormous lobbying pressure from tobacco companies, the Legislature approved about $14.3 million a year for the anti-smoking advertising campaign in 1989 and 1990 and put the University of California in charge of tobacco-related research.

The coalition that supported this division of surtax funds might have held were it not for the double whammy of a growing state budget deficit and the severe recession of 1991. The Prop. 99 tobacco revenue began to look attractive to Gov. Pete Wilson and lawmakers struggling to avoid cuts in health care. To complicate matters, anti-smoking efforts seemed to be working: Cigarette consumption was down, and so were surtax revenues.

Never mind that this was the whole point of the endeavor. With the tax pie shrinking, battles shaped up over which coalition members would take the biggest funding cuts. Each new allocation formula brought a new round of lawsuits, and in each instance, the courts ruled that the Legislature had acted improperly in diverting money from education and research to health services.

In 1995, lawmakers voted -- by the 80-20 margin required by Prop. 99 -- to change the allocations. For now, several of the health services programs and the anti-smoking media campaign are "protected" from cuts when cigarette tax revenues fall short.

For the 1997-98 budget year, the tax is expected to bring in about $453 million, slightly less than last year. Wilson has proposed spending $108.7 million for anti-smoking education, down from $130 million, and the anti-smoking media campaign is slated to receive $67.5 million over the next three years, starting with $19 million for this year.

For all the heat they attract, the ads' import may be more symbolic than tangible. No study has yet demonstrated precisely what role, if any, mass marketing has played in the state's astonishing 38 percent decline in smoking since Prop. 99 passed, vs. a national drop of 4 percent, which last year reversed itself with a small rise. But in a disturbing twist, the state's teen smoking rates have gone up (as they have nationwide).

This new, three-year contract is the second consecutive one for Asher/Gould, and its renewal was one of the few decisions not to draw the ire of the anti-tobacco coalition. Asher/Gould was effectively inoculated against attack on that front after one of Wilson's cabinet secretaries ordered the papering over of an Asher/Gould billboard and killed one of its TV spots before it was aired.

Because of its Los Angeles location -- California implemented the first anti-tobacco campaign of its kind -- Asher/Gould became the de facto industry leader in anti-smoking advertising. But as the market for such advertising grows, so grows the competition. In Massachusetts and Arizona, initiatives led to major contracts for home-state agencies.

"Unselling" a heavily promoted product that does, after all, give pleasure to millions of people is difficult enough. Even more difficult to persuade are the prime targets of the anti-tobacco campaign: 10- to 16-year-olds, the demographic group where 90 percent of all smokers pick up their addictions.

Asher/Gould President Bruce Silverman did not return phone calls last week, but in December 1995 he explained why one of his firm's harder-edged spots was popular with teens: "Young people hate to be manipulated, particularly by adults."

That ad shows a leering, yellow-toothed fisherman hauling out his catch, leaving them to flop to a gasping death on the dock because they've been "hooked." Even so, a sample reel of Asher/Gould's spots furnished by the Health Department tends to be pretty obliquely cerebral, rather than directed at a teen-age sensibility. Most of the messages either focus on getting adults to stop smoking or demonizing the tobacco industry. Even the two or three ads where teen-agers actually appear have a preachy tone.

In stark contrast is the newest generation of anti-tobacco ads. They come out of Arizona, the latest state to establish an excise-tax-financed anti-smoking ad fund.

Brad Christensen of the Arizona Department of Health Services says the Asher/Gould message "is not going to cause anybody to stop smoking. Everybody knows that tobacco companies are in it to make profits."

Christensen's agency chose the tactics proposed by the Riester Corp., a small, young, Phoenix company, for its $6 million, six-month campaign kickoff a year ago.

The tone is edgy, even rude. The slogan is "Tobacco. Tumor causing, teeth staining, smelly, puking habit." Each word was taken from comments by teen-age focus group participants, notes Riester's David Anderson. Riester's surveys show that 92 percent of the state's teen-agers know the words.

In one spot, a girl reaches for her boyfriend's popcorn container and mistakenly takes a swig of the globby brown tobacco juice he's been spitting, photographed by a "cup cam" -- that is, photographed disgustingly, from the bottom up.

"We're competing against Nike and Joe Camel," Anderson says in defense of the nauseating tack. And Riester took a page from the books of those two marketing success stories and developed a catalog of gear adorned with the "Tumor causing ..." slogan.

Finally, to go to where the boys and girls are, Riester developed the "Ash Kicker," a traveling anti-smoking caravan. Its main component is a 24-foot trailer made to look like the inside of a smoker's mouth, as envisioned by a former Disney set designer.

"Everybody sees it. It makes 25 to 30 stops a month," Anderson says. In a recent two-day event, he says, 30,000 kids passed through.

Riester's pitch has proved popular well beyond Arizona's borders. In fact, in a first-ever agreement with the federal Centers for Disease Control, Riester has made "all of our commercials available to anyone" basically at cost. So far, 38 states have asked for copies.

That's decidedly different from the secrecy that shrouds California's ad campaign. More telling, that secrecy raises a key question: Why spend scarce dollars reinventing the wheel when seemingly effective ads are available elsewhere for free?

Phyllis Orrick and Susan Rasky can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail:

About The Authors

Phyllis Orrick


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