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Anti-smoking 'Truth' tour may flame out

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One of the nation's most potent and effective anti-smoking campaigns aimed at teenagers may be on its last gasp. Called the "truth," the campaign is known for its in-your-face public service messages showing the gruesome toll of smoking --- stacked body bags, cemeteries, and "Drop Dead Day." The prevention tour, which uses marketing tactics similar to tobacco companies, stopped at Philips Arena in Atlanta on Sunday.

It sponsors music, sports and other popular events. The "truth" mission is twofold: present facts and information about smoking so teens can make their own informed decision, and explain how tobacco companies pitch their product. In short, create an "in" crowd of nonsmokers who are too cool to be fooled by Big Tobacco.

"I think it's stupid. I ain't never gonna do it," Lamar Sharper, 14, of Decatur said about smoking after he won a dance contest Sunday. "My grandmother died of smoking. I'll stick with chocolate milk and Sprite."

Basketball was the main attraction under Sunday's perfect last-day-of-summer-for-schoolkids sky. Hoops set up outside gave hundreds a chance to show their stuff. Winners advanced to the "streetball" elimination contest set up inside Philips, hosted by AND 1, an athletic clothing line.

The "truth" tour is part of a $1.5 billion anti-smoking campaign financed with proceeds from the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between the states and the tobacco industry to recoup health costs of treating sick smokers. It is overseen by the American Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit public health foundation that also distributes anti-tobacco grants to smaller organizations.

Whether or not the "truth" campaign will be around in 2005 is unclear because it has received the last guaranteed settlement payment.

Dozens of health and education officials are calling upon the tobacco industry to continue funding the campaign.

Among those is Dr. Louis Sullivan, president emeritus of the Morehouse School of Medicine.

Currently, more than 5 million American children and teens, ages 12-17, smoke. However, those numbers are falling rapidly and many credit the far-reaching "truth" campaign and higher cigarette taxes.

In 2003, 22 percent of teens said they were current smokers --- down from 28.5 percent in 2001 and a far cry from the high-water mark of 36 percent recorded in 1997, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Georgia's high school teen smoking rate was 24 percent in 2001. Another survey won't be taken until 2005.

"Countermarketing and supporting music and sports, has worked," said Delmonte Jefferson, program director of the tobacco use prevention program with the Georgia Division of Public Health.

"They don't preach. They basically say, 'Here are the facts, You make the decision. You get to decide.' " > ON THE WEB: For more information about this topic:

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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