The American Legacy Foundation's "Truth Campaign":  Using tobacco funds for anti-smoking ads

By Martin Morse Wooster
web posted July 17, 2000

It’s only been a year and a half since the $206 billion tobacco settlement, but already the once-invincible tobacco industry is bleeding from a thousand cuts.

Anti-smoking activists are in sight of their ultimate goal: a world where cigarette manufacturers are tightly regulated, banned from advertising and primarily devoted to "serving existing customers, while making no overt effort to win new ones," writes the Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Grier. "Not even the toughest anti-smoking group wants 43 million smokers to have to quit, cold turkey."

The tobacco wars are being fought on many fronts, but one particularly active battle targets teenagers who smoke. Anti-smoking advertisements are the weapon of choice for the American Legacy Foundation, a private operating foundation created by the tobacco settlement. And American Legacy has many allies — in state health departments, large health charities and anti-tobacco nonprofits — who are devoting much of their energy to persuading teens not to smoke. What are these non-profits doing — and what’s the evidence that their efforts are sufficiently successful to warrant the unusual ploy of forcing the tobacco industry to fund an anti-tobacco foundation?

Billion-Dollar Endowment

The American Legacy Foundation traces its origin to the sixth section of the 1998 tobacco settlement. U.S. tobacco manufacturers agreed to give the new foundation $250 million in March 1999 and each subsequent year until 2003, for a total endowment of $1.45 billion.

"The purposes of the Foundation," the settlement reads, "will be to support (1) the study of and programs to reduce Youth Tobacco Product usage and Youth substance abuse in the States, and (2) the study of and educational programs to prevent diseases associated with the use of Tobacco Products in the States." (See the full section of the settlement establishing the American Legacy Foundation at www.americanlegacy.org.)

The settlement also directs that the American Legacy Foundation board include eleven members, two to be appointed by the National Association of Attorneys General, two by the National Governors Association and two by the National Conference of State Legislatures. These six directors must appoint the remaining five directors, of whom one "shall have expertise in public health issues." The others "shall have expertise in medical, child psychology or public health disciplines."

Clause VI (h) makes important restrictions on what the American Legacy Foundation cannot do: "The Foundation shall not engage in, nor shall any of the Foundation’s money be used to engage in, any political activities or lobbying, including, but not limited to, support of or opposition to candidates, ballot initiatives, referenda or other activities. The National Public Education Fund [the grantmaking portion of the foundation] shall be used only for public education and advertising regarding the addictiveness, health effects and social costs related to the use of tobacco products and shall not be used for any personal attack on, or vilification of, any person (whether by name or business affiliation), company or governmental agency, whether individually or collectively."

These restrictions played a crucial role in the controversy that surrounded the American Legacy Foundation’s first national advertising campaign.

Grown in Florida

The American Legacy Foundation spent most of 1999 hiring staff and launching a $150-million-a-year national advertising campaign. After a nationwide search, it decided to divide its advertising dollars between Arnold Communications, creator of Massachusetts’ statewide campaign against teen smoking, and Crispin Porter & Bogulsky, creator of Florida’s anti-smoking ads.

But American Legacy did not just hire the ad agency that created Florida’s war on cigarettes; it also hired Charles "Chuck" Wolfe, who created the Florida campaign, as the foundation’s executive vice-president. So it’s little wonder that the foundation’s campaign is, in effect, an effort to implement the Florida program nationally.

The Florida Tobacco Pilot Program was created in 1998 with funds derived from Florida’s share of the tobacco settlement. The program began with a summit conference of 600 teenagers, who, according to Florida health official Carlea Bauman, were "locked up for four days with all the information we had about tobacco." Florida officials decided the best way to persuade young people not to smoke was to use the time-honored desire of youth to "stick it" to authority by teaching teens to be skeptical of tobacco ads. In effect, the state wanted Florida youths "to be rebels with a cause," the Christian Science Monitor reported in July 1998.

Thus began the state-funded Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT) and their "Truth Campaign." SWAT and Florida Tobacco Pilot Program officials used many innovative techniques to ensure that their message reached Florida teens. A 10-car "Truth Train" roamed across the state, featuring popular rock groups such as ‘Nsync, Big Sky and SRO. The campaign was assisted by actor William B. Davis, who portrays the villainous "Cigarette Smoking Man" on "The X-Files." And a conference featured a panel where the Brown & Williamson corporate answering machine was broadcast to a thousand teenagers — who all shouted messages after the beep.

But at the center of the Truth Campaign are edgy, in-your-face ads, created under a two-year, $50 million contract to Crispin Porter & Bogulsky. One commercial was a witty parody of "The Brady Bunch," which began, "Here’s the story of a chain-smoking lady." Another showed teens calling Hollywood producers who made films with characters who smoked and magazine editors whose publications accepted tobacco ads. The teens were shown being put on hold or told evasive answers when they tried to ask why they took tobacco dollars — the same dollars that fund the Truth Campaign.

But it’s clear that the Truth Campaign went over the top and kept on going. One early commercial showed a "Demon Awards" ceremony in Hell, featuring a tuxedo-clad tobacco company executive accepting an award for "Most Deaths in a Year" from a cheering audience that included Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and members of the Ku Klux Klan. The St. Petersburg Times editorialized that, by claiming that tobacco companies were as evil as Hitler, the commercial "serves to devalue the Holocaust.... This chapter of history is too important to be diminished or cheapened."

The Truth Campaign also attracted overseas ire. The state of Florida, reported Hugo Gurdon, a writer for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, "is so outraged about smoking that it has passed clean through seriousness and emerged on the other side in a state of pop-eyed hysteria.... America’s political class has slipped the bonds of sanity and declined into foam-flecked rage about smoking."

When the Republicans captured the Florida governorship in 1998, some Republican state legislators tried to slash funding for SWAT and the Truth Campaign. Some even threatened to end funding altogether. But angry teenagers from SWAT stormed the Florida statehouse, demanding that funds be restored. The day after the teenage protest, Florida Tobacco Pilot Program acting director Peter Mitchell resigned.

Ultimately. the Florida state legislature reduced anti-tobacco spending from $70 million to $32 million, forcing the reassignment of 11 of the 31 tobacco fighters to other jobs in the Florida Department of Health. The Truth Campaign continues, but it has been slightly toned down. The Florida anti-tobacco budget has since risen to $39 million, and Gov. Jeb Bush has praised the state’s anti-tobacco efforts.

National Controversy

The American Legacy Foundation has taken Florida’s advertising effort — and all its problems — and duplicated them on a national scale.

In January, the foundation submitted storyboards to the major networks for proposed commercials. All were initially rejected. One of them was a version of the infamous Florida "Demon Awards" spot. Another, according to American Legacy Foundation president Cheryl Healton, was turned down because the ad used a product name "that sounded too much like Clorox." A third rejected spot was a parody of an acne cream ad where a troubled teenager applied the cream to his face, causing severe burns, according to Adweek. The cream was portrayed as analogous to tobacco’s harmful effects.

But particularly controversial were two spots filmed outside Philip Morris corporate headquarters in New York City. In one, a young actress tries to enter the building with a large suitcase labeled "LIE DETECTOR." She asks to meet with Philip Morris marketers, only to be escorted out by security guards. A second spot showed teenagers unloading hundreds of body bags outside the building, when an actor yells, "Do you know how many people tobacco kills every day?"

Phillip Morris protested these advertisements and accompanying material on the Web (www.thetruth.org), citing the tobacco settlement’s anti-vilification clause. The foundation’s first response was to remove Philip Morris’s corporate logo from the spots.

But that was not enough for Michael F. Easley, Democratic Attorney General of North Carolina. According to the Washington Post, in February Easley wrote a letter to American Legacy board chairman Christine Gregoire, the Democratic Attorney General of Washington State, reminding her that the foundation was created to produce "anti-smoking and health-related ads, and not for ads designed to vilify the tobacco companies." If the foundation did not withdraw the Philip Morris spots, Easley warned, "continued funding of the very important anti-youth smoking goals" of the foundation would be jeopardized.

Three days later, in a perverse victory for donor intent, Gregoire ordered the Philip Morris spots withdrawn. Anti-tobacco activists were furious.

"How can you run an anti-smoking campaign and not vilify the industry?" former Food and Drug Administration head David Kessler asked the Washington Post. "It would be better not to take the money if the industry is able to pull the strings and take control."

"I think the Legacy Foundation has basically destroyed itself," added Stanton Glantz, a veteran anti-tobacco activist who teaches at the University of California-San Francisco.

The foundation’s Truth Campaign continues. But executive vice president Charles Wolfe resigned from the foundation in May, issuing a public statement that he wanted "to move on to the next challenge." He then refused to speak to the press.

Will the remaining ads persuade teenagers not to smoke? Most of the ads that have aired on the major networks rely on statistics, citing the number of chemicals in cigarette smoke or the one out of three smokers who eventually die from their habit.

Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield doesn’t believe these ads are persuasive: "The bad thing about these spots is that the message is sadly unimpressive," Garfield wrote. "‘Tobacco kills’ has been proved again and again to be unmotivating for the adolescent audience that (a) defies authority and (b) imagines itself invulnerable. What does impress teenagers is a credible appeal to their vanity — i.e., tobacco makes you smell, tobacco makes your teeth yellow, smoke repulses the opposite sex, cancer destroys beauty and so on."

One-Sided War

In May, the American Legacy Foundation launched another advertising-related attack on the tobacco industry, but this time it was to silence its adversaries. Under the 1998 tobacco settlement, the participating tobacco companies were barred from directing advertising campaigns at teenagers. The tobacco firms also voluntarily pledged not to advertise in magazines that had more than 15 percent of subscribers under the age of 18.

American Legacy charged that tobacco advertising in magazines read by teenagers — such as Sports Illustrated, Vibe, Elle, Rolling Stone and Hot Rod — had increased since the 1998 settlement, and that the top ten tobacco brands all advertised in these magazines. The two brands most liked by teenagers — Winston and Marlboro — purchased enough advertisements so that 86 percent of teenage readers saw an advertisement for one of these brands five or more times, American Legacy said.

Three of the foundation’s nonprofit allies — the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — demanded that Congress restore the Food and Drug Administration’s power to regulate tobacco, which the Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional. The nonprofits also requested funding for the Department of Justice to launch a national suit against the tobacco industry. The American Legacy study, said American Cancer Society CEO John S. Seffrin, underscored "the need for Congress to pass strong and meaningful regulation over tobacco products."

Congress has not met the demands, but the campaign successfully bullied the largest U.S. tobacco company into accepting voluntary restrictions. Last month, Philip Morris announced that in October it would eliminate advertising in 42 magazines with a significant teenage readership. The company spent $130.6 million for advertising in these magazines in 1999 — more than a quarter of all cigarette ad spending in U.S. magazines. The publications likely to suffer most from the pullout are Sports Illustrated (which will lose $20.9 million in advertising revenue), People ($17.5 million) and Entertainment Weekly ($11.9 million), according to Inside.com. Other publications affected include Newsweek, Spin, TV Guide, Vogue and Glamour.

A Barrage of Advertising

The American Legacy Foundation is, by far, the largest anti-tobacco advertiser in the U.S. But it has helped to inspire the advertising campaigns of other nonprofits and some states. Since these organizations are not bound by the anti-vilification restrictions of the 1998 tobacco settlement, they often create ads that are even more controversial than American Legacy’s commercials.

The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, a nonprofit coalition funded by that state’s share of the tobacco settlement, provided $12.5 million to the Jackson, Mississippi advertising agency Maris West & Baker. The agency, according to Advertising Age reporter Ira Teinowitz, decided to reach out to animal rights sympathizers. The agency produced a commercial featuring "Frances, the Lonely Lab Monkey," who is forced to inhale nicotine as white-smocked corporate tobacco researchers gleefully watch the agonized animal suffer.

Anti-tobacco activists have also taken over billboards under a clause of the tobacco settlement that bans billboard advertising by cigarette companies but requires the tobacco companies to pay for anti-smoking advertisements. In Ohio, Republican Attorney General Betty Montgomery took over 343 billboards in that state in April 1999 and placed ads showing a teenage smoker with the caption, "Welcome to LOSERVILLE. Population YOU."

The Ohio campaign was attacked by a coalition of 30 children’s nonprofits in the Cleveland area, who charged that the ads might damage children’s self-esteem. Other Clevelanders thought that travellers might assume that their cities were "Loservilles," and were particularly irritated by one ad that greeted passengers at the Cleveland airport, reported the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Montgomery vowed that the ads — developed in collaboration by the state, the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society and the Ohio Medical Association — would continue until the billboard leases expired.

Who Benefits?

But with all this money being poured into anti-tobacco advertising, what’s the evidence that these ad campaigns are persuading teens to stop smoking?

Anti-tobacco activists point to two studies published in March. Under grants from the state of Massachusetts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Michael Siegel of Boston University and Lois Biener of the University of Massachusetts-Boston surveyed 618 Massachusetts teenagers in 1993, when the state began a massive anti-smoking campaign, and in 1997. They found some evidence that youths aged 12 to 13 when the campaign began were less likely to smoke four years later.

Writing in the American Journal of Public Health, Siegel and Biener noted that there were many limits to Massachusetts’s ability to persuade teenagers not to smoke. They found no evidence that youths aged 14-15 when the advertisements began reduced their smoking. Nor did they find any evidence that anti-smoking billboards, radio commercials or magazine advertisements influenced teenagers. Moreover, Siegel and Biener observed that Massachusetts’s expenditure of $50 million (or $8 per teenager) on the anti-tobacco campaign was "particularly high," and "one would not expect less intense campaigns to have the same effect." Finally, Siegel and Biener wrote that a factor they didn’t consider, an "unknown confounder... could explain the observed association between exposure to television advertisements and reduced rates of progression to established smoking."

A second study, conducted by the Florida Department of Health and four other Florida agencies, surveyed middle and high school students in that state. The 2000 edition of the Florida Youth Tobacco Survey, released in March, found that two years after the Truth Campaign began, the percentage of middle schoolers who had smoked a cigarette in the past 30 days had fallen from 18.5 percent in 1998 to 8.6 percent in 2000. The percentage of high school students who had smoked a cigarette during that period fell from 27.4 percent to 20.9 percent. These declines, the survey reported, resulted in "79,760 fewer Florida youth smokers in 2000 compared to 1998, and approximately 26,320 fewer premature deaths attributable to smoking — if these youths had become and remained regular smokers."

But was the Truth Campaign responsible for the decline in youth smoking — assuming the decline is real? It’s illegal in Florida for minors to purchase tobacco. An important part of the state’s tobacco-fighting effort includes increased sanctions against teen smoking, including tickets for teens caught smoking at school and suspension of drivers licenses for teenagers caught with cigarettes in their cars.

Given these sanctions, why should teenagers honestly tell representatives of the Florida government about their smoking habits? The Florida researchers did not actually observe teenagers smoke. They asked teens to report on their own tobacco use. As Florida state representative Debby Sanderson (R), a leading critic of the Truth Campaign, told the Washington Post, "people don’t always tell the truth" when filling out surveys.

It cannot be assumed that the connection between advertising and teenage tobacco use is strong. In his book Fear of Persuasion, American Enterprise Institute resident scholar John Calfee studied all the available evidence about teenagers and smoking and concluded that teenagers start smoking, not because of commercials, but because of peer pressure. At best, Calfee explains, advertising can persuade teens to switch brands, but not to start smoking.

"Teens greet tobacco and alcohol advertising with pretty much the same skepticism of advertisers’ motives that they and their parents bring to advertising generally," Calfee writes. "We know that if advertising is to have even a chance at exerting a profound effect on the most essential decisions made by youth, it is going to have to work very hard, and even then it will face little hope of success."

So if tobacco advertising doesn’t persuade teens to smoke, we can hardly conclude that anti-smoking campaigns persuade smokers to give up the habit. All this raises questions about the American Legacy Foundation and whether it will use its tobacco billions to successfully reduce teenage tobacco use.

Far more likely, the foundation’s ultimate legacy will be a massive transfer of wealth from tobacco consumers and the retail market to well-to-do foundation officials and advertising executives.

Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at Capital Research Center. His new book, Return to Charity? Philanthropy and the Welfare State, is available from CRC for $10.00. To order, send a pre-paid check to CRC, or call 1-800-459-3950 to order by credit card.

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