When it comes to talking tobacco prevention, teens might prove more effective than our nation’s leaders.

By Anne Welsbacher

Our state and national leaders continue to send mixed messages about tobacco, blowing tobacco settlement funds on short-term fiscal dike-plugging. The Master Settlement Agreement in 1998 required tobacco companies to make annual payments to states in perpetuity, to be applied toward tobacco prevention and addiction programs, and to restrict marketing of tobacco products. Neither has happened. In FY 2004, the states cumulatively have budgeted for tobacco prevention programs only one third of the minimum amount recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (The CDC’s minimums are usually only 20% to 25% of a state’s annual settlement proceeds.)1

Anne Welsbacher

The tobacco industry has shown no such spending reluctance: it has increased marketing expenditures by 66%, to $31.4 million per day.1 Meanwhile, schools, students, and other organizations take up the slack by honing increasingly sharp-edged messages of their own.

When I typed “smoking cessation” into Google, I got 581,000 hits. Many of the approximately .00005% I perused provide information that is useful but not inspired. Among them is a perfectly adequate offering from the Department of Health and Human Services, a new national smoking cessation quitline network, providing a toll-free phone number that smokers in every state will be able to call. (See www.smokefree.gov. )

But I found livelier fare through groups such as the contributors to the ninth annual Kick-Butts event sponsored by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids®. In New York City, celebrations of the first anniversary of the city’s smoke-free workplace law opened with NBA Hall-of-Famer Isiah Thomas addressing winners of a student art contest promoting prevention. In Sitka, Alaska, the governor, who has proposed a $1 per pack cigarette tax increase, spoke at school events, and Baton Rouge, La, hosted one of many state capitol rallies. Maryland’s “Be a Radio Idol” contest served up student-written “commercials.” In one, Mom describes a trip to the store for arsenic, formaldehyde, and other elements found in cigarettes. In another, bachelor #2 boasts, “I contain urea, a common chemical found in urine!” and bachelor #3 assures the game show’s contestant that she will not have to worry about ex-girlfriends because “sweet thang, I kill one third of the people that use me!”

My favorite resource is from the University of Iowa Healthcare with graphic images of teenagers affected by smoking. It doesn’t dwell on death, cancer, or other concepts far removed from the minds of most teenagers. It addresses black toes, necks with holes in them, wrinkled eyes, impotent organs.

The creative output of students and educators in modestly funded programs might prove more effective in tobacco prevention than the loftier efforts of our nation’s leaders. When these leaders spend tobacco prevention funding on concerns utterly unrelated to tobacco, they pay their debts with the lives of our children.


Anne Welsbacher is the former editor of RT. For more information, contact [email protected].


1. Tobacco Free Kids. Available at: http://www.tobaccofreekids.org/reports/settlements/. Accessed April 13, 2004.