State seeks to alter sullied image with anti-smoking pitch

January 12, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- WANTED: Non-smoking smooth operator who likes kids. Marlboro Man and Old Joe the Camel need not apply.

Alarmed by his state's No. 1 ranking as a cancer hot spot, Gov. William Donald Schaefer wants to spend $3 million over three years on an anti-smoking public relations campaign.

L The tobacco industry is trying to make sure that he doesn't.

What the state wants is an arresting message or image -- something smart and cuddly to counter billion-dollar pro-smoking campaigns led by jut-jawed cowboys on horseback and ''smooth operating'' camels.

bTC The ubiquitous presence of Joe the Camel beckons to children from billboards and T-shirts with the combined appeal of James Bond and your favorite teddy bear.

Since the ''smooth character'' campaign started in 1988, the proportion of smokers under 18 who choose Camels rose from .5 percent to 32.8 percent, according to an article in the December issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

That share of an illegal market meant an income increase for R.J.R. Nabisco, manufacturer of Camels, of $470 million per year, the article's authors say.

While billions are spent to promote development of cigarette smokers, the state is searching for ways to cope with the results: 194.1 Marylanders per 100,000 die of cancer each year, the highest mortality rate in the nation.

In all, 7,663 Marylanders die each year of smoking-related causes, primarily lung cancer and heart disease.

The state has invited public relations firms to describe how they would approach Marylanders with real-world warnings that go beyond the cryptic, abstract messages they get from the U.S. Surgeon General.

The campaign would also try to increase awareness of how breast and cervical cancer can be detected.

As noble as the state's advertising mission may seem, it has drawn the secretary of health and mental hygiene, Nelson J. Sabatini, into a showdown with the tobacco industry's lead Maryland lobbyist, Bruce C. Bereano.

Lobbyist Bereano calls the state's effort to save lives and money ''a frill,'' inappropriate in any year and particularly in year when state can barely balance its budget.

Mr. Sabatini says the state will save plenty -- in lives not lost to cancer and a reduction of the spiking cost of treating that disease.

Mr. Bereano says the campaign is anti-Maryland. Tobacco's roots are imbedded in the agricultural and commercial soul of the state. Its leaves adorn the top of a fountain in the governor's mansion, he observes.

''We're talking about a lawful product that during the last legislative session was taxed to balance the budget,'' he says.

He's likely to repeat the argument on another front this year. Mr. Schaefer has proposed an additional 25-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes.

Mr. Bereano says he'll base his lobbying strategy, as always, on the sanctity of free choice in a democratic society.

Mr. Sabatini says that argument is hard to sustain in the case of children who may not be ready to sort through the appeals for ''cool'' behavior.

A major objective of the campaign will be to counter what the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests is a stunningly successful effort by tobacco interests to prepare children for a lifetime of smoking.

Some marketing researchers, the magazine notes, refer to children as ''consumers in training.''

A series of articles in JAMA's Dec. 11 issue says researchers ''believe that brand awareness created in childhood can be the basis for product preferences later in life."

''By the age of 6,'' one of the articles states, ''Old Joe is as well-recognized as Mickey Mouse.''

Mr. Sabatini says Mr. Bereano's argument about free choice is a bit hypocritical, since U.S. cigarette manufacturers spend so much on advertising and promotions -- $3.27 billion in 1988, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Tobacco interests want to ''learn everything there is to learn about how smoking begins,'' the JAMA series charges.

The industry's research, the authors say, attempts to identify the major psychological vulnerabilities of children and exploit them by advertising to foster and maintain nicotine addiction.

The battle to save the state's $3 million proposal has an unusual personal dimension. It pits non-smoker Bereano against chain-smoker Sabatini.

Embarrassed by his repeated failure to control his own nicotine addiction, Mr. Sabatini sees himself as a prime example of why the state should do its best to keep youngsters from smoking at the outset.

''The success you have at quitting once you become addicted is not all that great,'' Mr. Sabatini says. He has tried every smoke-ender and smoke-buster program he knows, including hypnotism and a program run by a Sister Thomas at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

Remembering his parochial school lessons, Mr. Sabatini thought the strictness of nuns might be just what he needed.

''If anything could terrorize you that would be it,'' he said. The program helped -- some.

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