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WASHINGTON, Mar 19, 2004 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- An unprecedented bipartisan coalition of top former health officials announced Tuesday the launch of a drive to pressure the tobacco industry into resuming sponsorship of a successful anti-smoking campaign targeting the most vulnerable cigarette consumers: youths.
Former Cabinet secretaries, former U.S. surgeons general and former directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention formed a Citizens' Commission to Protect the Truth, a group dedicated to rallying public support for the endangered "Truth" anti-smoking campaign.
In November 1998, attorneys general from 46 states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories signed an agreement with the major cigarette companies to settle all state lawsuits seeking to recover the Medicaid costs of treating smokers. Besides imposing certain restrictions on tobacco marketing, the Master Settlement Agreement requires manufacturers to make annual payments totaling about $206 billion through 2025.
The settlement provides resources for the American Legacy Foundation to conduct Truth, a series of provocative anti-smoking print and electronic media ads geared specifically to youths. The campaign has been widely hailed as the most effective media campaign to slash teen smoking in the country. A survey sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse credited the campaign with a central role in major declines in smoking rates among high school students.
However, after March 2003, the Master Settlement Agreement no longer requires the four major players on the cigarette market -- Philip Morris, Brown and Williamson, R.J. Reynolds, and Lorillard -- to make annual payments to the Public Education Fund, which provides financial support to the Truth campaign, if their market share drops to less than 99.05 percent. Although these companies' market share has dropped below that threshold, it remains more than 90 percent.
According to commission members, payments stopped after the designated date. They estimate that just 1.5 cents per pack of cigarettes sold in the country can keep the campaign going by maintaining funds at the current $300 million level. "When all is said and done, isn't the health of our children worth a penny-and-a-half per pack?" asked Commission Chairman Joseph Califano Jr., secretary of Health, Education and Welfare from 1977 to 1979.
The former top federal health officials are launching a drive to gather at least 1 million signatures for a petition urging tobacco companies to continue payments. Citizens can vouch their support by visiting the commission's Web site -- ProtectTheTruth.org -- and either signing the petition online or downloading and circulating hardcopies.
The commission also plans to call on judges presiding over lawsuits against tobacco companies to consider ordering defendants in cases of tobacco company misconduct to fund the Truth campaign.
At a news conference, commission members sharply criticized "Big Tobacco" for allegedly failing to live up to the companies' expressed commitment to reduce youth smoking. "Tobacco marketing expenditures have skyrocketed since the MSA, and the evidence shows that the tobacco industry has not stopped marketing to our kids," said Matthew Meyers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
As for youth smoking prevention campaigns launched by tobacco companies themselves, Meyers said that not only do these not have an impact on teen smoking rates -- they might actually have a reverse effect by sending the message that tobacco companies are kids' friends.
John Banzhaf, a George Washington University Law School professor and a renowned anti-smoking activist, said after the news conference that the Truth campaign's Big Tobacco source of funding might take the edge off of the message for the same reason and create a potential "ethical quagmire." He pointed out that the American Cancer Society, which backs the Truth campaign initiative, does not fund researchers who also take tobacco money.
Rob Crane of the Department of Family Medicine at Ohio State University disagreed. "I think once you put the money unrestrictedly in the hands of tobacco control activists, it'll be put to good use," he said, citing as evidence the failure of the industry to put legal pressure on the Truth campaign by claiming that it used its money to disparage its business practices.
Carole Crosslin, a spokeswoman for R.J. Reynolds, the second-largest tobacco company in the United States, said, "We have fulfilled our financial obligations, and they were substantial." She said the tobacco industry has already put $1.5 billion into state and federal government funds that could be used for sponsoring similar campaigns. In response to charges that R.J. Reynolds continues marketing to children, Crosslin said, "All of our marketing efforts are directed at adults who've made a conscious decision to smoke."
At the news conference, federal officials dwelled on a long list of gruesome statistics about youth smoking. High-ranking health advocates, including John Kirkwood, president of the American Lung Association, and John Seffrin, chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society, supported and augmented the procession of troubling figures.
According to American Lung Association statistics, every day 6,000 children under 18 give smoking a try, and almost 2,000 of them become established daily smokers. According to commission data, a third of them will eventually die from tobacco-related diseases. "By failing to continue funding this campaign, the tobacco companies condemn millions of children and teens to premature death and disability," said Califano.
"If you are sick of smoking enslaving our children before the truth can free them, sign our petition and send a message to Big Tobacco to put their money where their mouth is," concluded Califano.
Copyright 2004 by United Press International.