There was a time when young cigarette smokers could expect a singular warning from their elders: Keep smoking and you’ll die young.
Now we know that few teens or twenty-somethings are moved to action by a concept as hazy as getting old. Or not getting old.
Besides, they can quit any time they want. Or so they think.
That’s why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is trying something fresh to get young smokers’ attention. Their timing is good.
With cigarette smoking among 12- to 18-year-olds decreasing a heartening 50 percent over the past five years, it’s easy to think that the problem is solved.
In fact, more than 3,200 kids under age 18 still light up cigarettes every day. More than 700 of them become addicted every day.
And kids being kids, they’ll always find new ways to worry us. Last week, Minnesota’s health commissioner, Ed Ehlinger, expressed growing concern that e-cigarettes threaten to hook a new generation on candy-flavored nicotine, undoing significant gains. One-fourth of kids who vape have never smoked a cigarette.
The FDA campaign’s seven ads, to air hundreds of times throughout 2015 on youth-oriented television shows and social networks, feature young actors and a smart underlying theme:
As in, if you smoke, you lose it.
“When I say, ‘Go outside,’ we go outside. When I say, ‘Fork it over,’ you fork it over. When I say, ‘Pause the movie,’ we pause the movie,” says a creepy character dragging a kid on his back down a school hallway and out the door.
In another, the creepster steps on the remote of a teenage boy to abruptly stop the movie he’s watching with friends.
Time to smoke!
“Cigarettes are bullies,” says the narrator. “Don’t let tobacco control you.”
A few of the spots are more graphic. In one, a convenience store cashier tells a young man that he needs to shell over more cash for the pack he’s buying. The young smoker doesn’t have the additional money, so, with a wrench, he yanks out a tooth with a sickening crunch and sets it on the counter.
Equally gag-worthy is a spot with a kid who sneaks out of his house in the dark, moving toward a slimy dumping ground of 7,000 chemicals. That toxic mix whirls around and ends up in his mouth.
Creation of the “nontraditional” anti-smoking campaign began in 2012, said FDA spokeswoman Kathy Crosby.
The agency sought a message that distanced itself from traditional pro-health campaigns (largely ineffective with young people), and from ads that chide young people for smoking.
More than 90 percent of smokers light up before age 18, she noted. The younger you start, the harder it is to quit.
“This is really about loss of control due to addiction,” Crosby said. “It’s a very sad thing when you can’t quit.”
With the ads, she said, “we’re trying to get them to hit the pause button and rethink their relationship with tobacco.”
She encourages parents to watch the ads — go to thereal cost.gov — to get a sense of the challenges kids face.
The FDA ads are airing where young people go, including MTV’s “Happyland,” ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars,” the CW’s “The Flash,” Fox’s “Family Guy,” USA’s “WWE Raw” and Comedy Central’s “Tosh.0,” as well as on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.
Some young people who have seen the ads were moved to comment online. Those comments had a shared theme, Crosby said, which is despondency about ever being able to quit.
“The word ‘control,’ as in ‘Don’t let cigarettes control you,’ helps a lot,” said a 23-year-old smoker who reviewed all the ads for me, “because it acknowledges the nature of cigarette addiction.
“I especially like the ad with the grungy little man telling the kid to pause the movie for a cigarette. I can relate to this. At times, I will feel the need to interrupt an activity I enjoy to smoke a cigarette. This speaks to the force of cigarette addiction and its controlling nature. It’s really not a choice I’m making.”
A 25-year-old smoker who also watched the ads at my request said she’s a hard sell because she lives in a world of messages and images as an interior design student at the University of Minnesota.
“As someone who has smoked ashamedly since the age of 18, I have to say that anti-smoking ads don’t really get to me, and rarely do they make me question my decision to do so.”
Still, this campaign made her think.
“When you see the depiction of the 7,000 chemicals inhaled, it really makes you think about what you’re putting in your body.”