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TEENAGE SMOKING BATTLE IS BACK ON

Remember those not-so-subtle ads? Expect some sort of a return.

Florida's once-heralded youth antismoking program is coming back.

Lawmakers had gutted the program's budget in recent years, but last year voters forced the program back into relevancy. Voters in November changed the Florida Constitution to require the Legislature to put 15 percent of the state's tobacco settlement dollars into the program each year, just under $58-million in the current year.

"We have restored an effective youth tobacco prevention program, which includes a substantial appropriation for smoking cessation," said Don Webster, chief executive of the American Cancer Society's Florida Division.

In the late 1990s Florida's effort to convince kids that smoking wasn't cool was widely praised, partly for its TV ads that had lots of teens - and young adults - talking about them, and partly because it seemed to work.

The number of kids who said in surveys that they smoke dropped dramatically when the program was in full swing. Once the program was no longer being used, the decreases leveled off.

The program featured a teen-oriented ad campaign that didn't bother with subtlety, portraying tobacco industry officials as outright killers. One ad compared tobacco company executives to Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and the Ku Klux Klan. Another featured a boy getting his tongue bitten off by a dog he was taunting. The ad, which targeted smokeless tobacco, asked "how attached are you to your tongue?"

Many lawmakers didn't like the in-your-face ads, which were designed at least in part by teenagers.

After putting $70-million into the campaign from the state's settlement of a lawsuit with cigarette makers in 1998, spending dropped steeply until lawmakers were putting a token $1-million a year into it, rendering it essentially dormant.

Voters stepped in last year, forcing the state to restore money for the effort.

While the program itself will return, it's not clear yet what it will do to fight teen smoking. It will include an advertising component, but the details are yet to emerge.

It likely will be at least early next year before most Floridians see the antismoking campaign, said Paul Hull, vice president of the American Cancer Society, which pushed hard for the constitutional amendment.

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