Teen anti-smoking campaign keeps it cool

Posted: 7/27/2010

From Chicago Tribune:

Surrounding the dirt bike course that was the center of the AST Dew Tour in Soldier Field's parking lot last weekend was a village of marketing booths trying to get young action sports fans to do something: Drink more Mountain Dew or join the National Guard or shop at JCPenney.

But one booth was trying to get youth to stop doing something: smoking. It took a soft-sell approach toward the teens and preteens who strolled past.

"We don't want our message to be preachy," said Jocelynn Jacobs, assistant brand manager with Legacy, a nonprofit anti-smoking organization that developed the Truth campaign that targets youths ages 12 to 17. "We want to message to be like your older brother giving you advice."

With booths, or "Truth trucks," replete with video monitors and deejay decks, they got some attention. Kids crowded around the booth, clamoring for T-shirts emblazoned with facts about the dangers of tobacco. There were no brochures, no lectures, hardly any mention of ciggies at all.

Summer months are important to get the message out because that's when most young people take their first puffs, said Jacobs. The campaign, born a decade ago in response to the tobacco industry's marketing, attempts to combat the advertising efforts of big tobacco. The goal is to convince youths that smoking isn't cool and not smoking is.

There is evidence that the approach is effective, said Joel Africk, president and CEO of the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, a century-old not-for-profit that helps those with lung disease, promotes healthy lungs and assists those trying to quit smoking.

"Ninety percent of all smokers start as kids," Africk said. "If we can stop them before they start, that will have a big effect overall." The rate of teen smoking declined for many years, he said, but, "Around 2003 or 2004, it plateaued. We're trying to jump-start that so the rate declines again."

Communicating the message effectively is key to that, Africk said. Smoking's effect on the pocketbook is another significant deterrent to teen smoking, he said. Especially in Illinois, where the cigarette tax ($3.66 combined state, county and city taxes on cigarette sales) is the second-highest in the nation, behind New York.

Still, some 3,500 children light up for the first time each day in this nation, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. That adds up to more than 1.2 million new fresh-faced puffers each year.

A recent study suggests those new smokers could be hanging out at convenience stores and other retail outlets. Teens exposed to smoking ads at retailers are more likely to smoke, according to the study, by Stanford University School of Medicine and published in the July issue of the journal Pediatrics.

In the steamy Soldier Field parking lot last weekend, a group of peppy Truth campaign workers enlisted the young people in Simon says and a limbo contest. They persuaded one girl to spin a hula-hoop while collecting her friends' e-mail address. Male Truth campaign workers, sporting earrings and dreadlocks, buddied up to crowd members while their female counterparts managed to keep the attention of smitten boys.

True to their word, there was no heavy-handed preaching about smoking.

"We're not much older than these kids," said Sanni Youboty, 24. "We respect their opinions and decision-making."

For Sam Weir, 18, of Pittsburgh, the message may have been lost.

"They didn't really say anything about their cause at all," he said.

Michelle Maier, 21, of Chicago, said it was a good message for teens who don't smoke yet.

"It targets teens very well," she said, puffing on a cigarette while she waited for the BMX event to begin. "You hear about not smoking all the time in school," she said between drags, "but who listens to teachers?"

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