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Teens to renew their assault on tobacco industry

In the wake of budget cuts and loss of leadership, a student group examines new ways of fighting the industry.

After seeing its funding cut in half, and losing much of its leadership and a key advocate in the Governor's Mansion, the question facing Florida's notoriously edgy and wildly successful anti-tobacco program is: What now?

Dozens of teens from around the state gathered in Orlando on Friday to begin to answer that question. The immediate answers seem to be 1) to get more teens involved, and 2) to take on the advertising the tobacco industry places in teen magazines.

"We're going to do a lot more," said Tiffany Hurley, 17, a student at East Bay High School and chair of the Tobacco Free Partnership branch in Hillsborough County. "The budget cuts don't help, but it wasn't the money that made the program work, it's the kids. And I think we're going to get more kids involved."

The anti-tobacco program is planning a campaign to send magazine ads back to tobacco companies with the message: "Rejected, rebuffed, returned. Your tobacco ads insult our intelligence."

Over the next months, members of Students Working Against Tobacco from around the state will be encouraged to find tobacco ads in magazines and send the rejection message. About 70 teens meeting in Orlando will spend the weekend fine-tuning that plan and coming up with others.

Program officials say there are 10,000 members of the group statewide.

"There's this perception that with the budget cuts, we won't be doing the commercials, we won't be doing the fun, edgy stuff," said Frank Penela, spokesman for the Florida Department of Health, which oversees the Florida Tobacco Pilot Program. Health Secretary Bob Brooks and Gov. Jeb Bush "are dedicated to moving this program forward. The kids know what works, and we're going to do what works. If that takes edgy commercials, that's what we'll do."

In its 1{ years of existence, the Tobacco Pilot Program has generated buzz on a regular basis - first with in-your-face television ads and billboards, and then by recording the biggest single-year decline in teen smoking in nearly 20 years. The program has drawn praise from health officials around the nation and from President Clinton. It was created by Gov. Lawton Chiles using proceeds from the state's landmark $13-billion settlement with tobacco companies.

The program made headlines again in March when legislators threatened to withhold funding, and eventually slashed the budget to $39-million. In the midst of the budget battles, the marketing director was forced out, and several staff positions were cut.

"That was more sad than anything," Tiffany Hurley said. "I found it offensive because Lawton Chiles worked so hard on this program, and then they were just going to throw it out."

Officials with the program say the most expensive portion of the project _ establishing the campaign _ was successful, and now the program can move on to another stage.

"While the most costly work is behind us, the most formidable is perhaps still ahead," Gov. Bush was quoted as saying in a release Friday. "Our challenge this year will be to move the program forward under new direction, working with and on behalf of young people to turn a two-year pilot program into a self-sustaining movement."