For years, Florida's stop-smoking hotline limped along with so little publicity that supporters joked it was the only such phone line with an unlisted number.
So in antismoking circles, this month saw a watershed moment: The hotline got nearly as many calls in one single minute — 150 — as it once would get in an entire month.
"That part of it has been tremendously successful, and we are just thrilled," said Paul Hull, vice president of advocacy and public policy for the American Cancer Society's Florida division.
The question now is whether the rest of the state's new antismoking campaign will work.
"It's often hard to predict what public health messages will work," said Thomas H. Brandon, director of the Tobacco Research and Intervention Program at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute. "The proof is in the pudding."
After years of minimal funding, the state now has $17-million to spend on a campaign against smoking, part of a $58-million tobacco cessation and prevention program. The money comes from voters' 2006 constitutional amendment to put 15 percent of state tobacco settlement funds into the program.
So now, you can enter a contest for the best antismoking video on YouTube, download songs by "smoke-free" musicians and become a campaign fan on FaceBook.
There are TV ads, radio ads, antismoking bracelets and even a comic book that features Superman and pals battling a villain using cigarette smoke as a weapon, all aimed at the 19 percent of Floridians who smoke and those who might start.
But will it work? The high-tech medium is new, but the message is milder. The tone is distinctly different from the nationally recognized "Truth" campaign that Florida piloted in the late 1990s.
It featured edgy, aggressive advertising that bashed the tobacco industry for manipulating teens and inspired a widely praised national campaign.
"That earlier Florida program was just a wonderful model for the rest of the country," said Eric Lindblom, director for policy research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "It was so tragic when it was cut back."
After the "Truth" campaign began, health surveys showed that Florida teen smoking rates dropped from 23.3 percent to 20.9 percent. But over a few years, legislators gutted funding from $70-million a year to about $1-million.
The icon of the new campaign is a fluffy sky-blue cloud with the logo, "i care. I DON'T SMOKE."
"The 'Truth' campaign was more hard-hitting … and tried to redirect the adolescent sense of rebellion," Brandon said. "This is definitely a softer campaign. Whether that resonates to teens, I don't know."
But today's teenagers are different, said Kim Berfield, deputy secretary of the state Health Department, which administers the campaign. State focus groups indicated a different kind of campaign would work better. "It's not the big, bad tobacco industry as much as, 'How is this affecting me personally?' " she said.
In Plant City this month, teens got a firsthand look at one of the stars of the new campaign: a traveling van called the Smokifier. It features a camera to take visitors' photos and computer software to age them on the spot as smokers, so teens see that if they smoke, they'll eventually get more wrinkles and lines.
When 15-year-old Alix Hooker got her picture taken, the hardest part was stopping her giggles long enough to take the picture. The final result didn't show her braces or the green ring pop on her finger.
"I look deformed," she said.
But could the photos keep kids from smoking?
Yes, Alix said.
"Everyone wants to get married and have kids, and if you look like that, I don't think it's going to happen," she explained.
For Brandon, the best campaign piece he's seen so far is a TV ad targeting parents. It features a somber-faced boy tossing a baseball to an empty patch of grass. "Each year," a child's voice says, "smoking leaves 31,000 children fatherless."
"The 'i care' campaign may be more effective for getting adults to quit," Brandon said. "That was needed. We can't just write off smokers."
While antismoking campaigns may sound expensive, Brandon and other advocates say, their cost pales in comparison to smoking's. America spends $167-billion on health-related smoking costs each year.
To look at it another way, one antismoking group, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, estimates that lifetime health care for the average smoker costs $17,500 more than the average nonsmoker.
So the $17-million campaign pays for itself if it keeps 1,000 Florida teens from lighting up. More than 26,000 Florida teens become smokers each year.
Despite the new dollars, the campaign remains dwarfed by the amount the tobacco industry spends in Florida. "Part of the challenge we face is the innovative effort that the tobacco industry is using to try to target young people," Berfield said.
Late last year, eight states sued R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., saying it broke its promise not to market to young people by advertising Camel cigarettes with cartoons and free "fresh picked music" CDs and a Web site touting independent musicians.
But the companies have other tactics, Hull said. "They'll send attractive young people to bars, giving out free samples," he said.
Partly because of tourism, Florida is an attractive market for tobacco companies. The industry spends more money marketing cigarettes here than any other state, Hull said.
And according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, just how much is that?
$930-million a year.
Lisa Greene can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3322.