FDA’s anti-smoking campaign to target teens

December 9, 2013

Early next year, half a century after the U.S. surgeon general first proclaimed the deadly effects of smoking, the Food and Drug Administration will launch a public health campaign unlike any the federal government has ever attempted.

Slick, data-driven and well-funded, the effort could cost up to $600 million over the next five years, all of it paid for by the tobacco industry under a 2009 law.

It will feature carefully crafted anti-smoking messages targeting specific types of teenagers, from rural kids who watch “Duck Dynasty” and drive pickups to gay and lesbian teens who prefer the nightclub scene.

In contracting with top-flight advertising firms, conducting intense demographic research and micro-targeting subsets of the 12-to-17-year-old crowd, the FDA is hoping to take a page from the marketing playbook of corporate America.

“It’s the federal government going to ad firms of the quality and ability that the tobacco industry has always used,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a national advocacy group. “They’re ensuring that the media designed to educate and reach at-risk young people is of the same quality that the tobacco industry has used to attract them.”

The federal government can scarcely compete with the tobacco industry, which spent more than $8 billion on advertising and promotions during 2011, according to the most recent data available from the Federal Trade Commission.

But Mitch Zeller, head of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, said he hopes that in undertaking the first federally funded anti-smoking campaign aimed exclusively at young people, the government can put a dent in the number of teenagers who smoke their first cigarette each day — now roughly 3,300, with an estimated 700 to 800 becoming addicted.

“Once they become regular smokers or regular tobacco users, then it’s the progression to addiction, disease and premature death,” Zeller said. “We have a responsibility . . . to reduce the death and disease toll from tobacco use. That includes educating kids about the harms of tobacco use in an effective way, in a way that will reach them.”

Previous government-backed anti-smoking initiatives have not been on this scale. Some individual states have run campaigns designed to discourage youth smoking — efforts largely financed by a 1998 settlement under which tobacco companies paid states billions of dollars to settle Medicaid claims for tobacco-related health-care costs.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched the first federally funded national anti-smoking campaign, but that was geared toward getting existing smokers to stop, not toward teen prevention.

For the new campaign, the FDA is turning to people such as Jeff Jordan, 29. The agency has given him $152 million and a mission: Find a way to cut through the cluttered modern media landscape and persuade teenagers to steer clear of tobacco. And not just any teenagers, but those particularly at risk for becoming smokers, such as Hispanics, Asian Americans, African Americans, gays and lesbians.

Jordan’s San Diego-based firm, Rescue Social Change Group, has spent years developing anti-smoking campaigns that target slivers of youth culture, from teens in Northern Virginia’s alternative rock scene to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens in Las Vegas. He said he believes that to have any chance of reaching those and other at-risk populations, the government must break free of generic messages aimed at reaching all teens.

“If half the population likes blue, and the other half likes yellow, a government agency will make their campaign green,” Jordan told an audience in Finland in 2012. “But they need to realize that being everything to everyone doesn’t work in marketing. They need to segment their audience and tailor their campaigns to be effective.”

The FDA has committed $300 million to the anti-smoking ad blitz in 2014 and 2015, with the possibility of doubling that in coming years. While a chunk of the money will initially be used to target teens who have never smoked or are intermittent tobacco users, most will be aimed at young people with higher risks of becoming addicted to tobacco.

Kathy Crosby, an FDA official and advertising industry veteran overseeing the campaigns, said the agency hopes to replicate the ways in which corporate America focuses on certain demographic groups, including notoriously hard-to-reach teenagers.

“Brands are masters at understanding the marketplace, understanding the dynamics of the marketplace and carving out a way to reach their target audiences,” Crosby said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Neither the FDA nor the firms it has hired have offered specifics about the campaigns, saying they are a work in progress. But Jordan said the first and most important step is researching which teens to target, then crafting messages that ring true to that group.

“No public health effort before has truly fit into a youth culture, the way they see their culture,” said Jordan, whose small firm has doubled in size to nearly 60 employees and opened a Washington office since starting to work on the FDA project. “The most important part is to be authentic and credible. . . . If we can make a campaign that’s specifically designed for a group, that looks like them, sounds like them, identified with them, we can help them see that people like them are deciding smoking is unhealthy.”

He calls the approach “creating bull’s-eyes” at the fringes of youth culture. “If it actually works,” he said, “we’re talking about reducing [smoking] rates among the groups that are most resistant to a generally targeted message.”

Previous anti-smoking campaigns created by the various firms hired by the FDA offer hints about what to expect. The ads tend to be more edgy than people might expect from a government-backed campaign and often feature young people talking in blunt terms to peers about the consequences of tobacco use.

The firms involved also are adept at getting messages out in ways beyond traditional television and radio advertising, such as creating specialized Web sites and blogs, using Twitter and Facebook, hosting events at bars and staging concerts headlined by bands popular among target audiences.

Better World Advertising, a firm that the FDA has hired to target Native American teens, created a campaign in New York to encourage doctors to talk more with patients about the risks of tobacco, and another in California reminding parents of the dangers of secondhand smoke. The slogan for the latter: “When you smoke, they smoke.”

Another firm working with the FDA, Draftfcb, recently helped the government revamp the image of Smokey Bear.

Zeller, the FDA’s top tobacco official, knows a thing or two about the potential benefits of an aggressive anti-smoking campaign. In the early 2000s, he spent time as an executive at the nonprofit American Legacy Foundation, where he oversaw the “Truth Campaign.”

Funded by a massive tobacco-industry settlement in 1998, the campaign was characterized by in-your-face ads meant to educate teens about the tobacco industry’s misleading marketing practices.

“I know how to do this, and I know what works,” Zeller said in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year. “And what works is, get really smart people from the outside, do it under contract, do the right research, develop the right messages, have a laser beam focus on who your target is and then buy your media correctly. And then spend money. Because it’s a dose response. Once you’ve done those first three or four things, the more you invest, the more impact you will have.”

Studies have concluded that the “truth” campaign had a tangible effect, discouraging some young people from starting to smoke and prompting others to think twice about their habit.

Another recent study estimated that 1.6 million Americans tried to quit smoking after last year’s CDC campaign, which featured stark images and pleas from adult ex-smokers suffering from a variety of ailments, including amputated limbs and throat cancer.

Whatever shape the FDA’s anti-smoking ads take, Jordan said he’s encouraged to see the government trying to reach teenagers in new and creative ways, in part by taking a chance on firms like his, which aren’t exactly mainstream.

“From the perspective of a federal agency, we’re by no means a quiet company,” he said. “Our work is risque and really in your face, and it’s meant to really cause change. I’m thankful they were willing to take the risk.”

Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on food and drug issues.
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