Can the federal government do hip-hop?
That's the goal of a new ad campaign from the Food and Drug Administration, which aims to embrace the attitude and style of "hip-hop culture" in an effort to dissuade young African Americans, Hispanics and other minority teenagers from smoking.
The $128 million "Fresh Empire" campaign, funded by fees on the tobacco industry, will include television ads, local outreach efforts and events featuring DJs and musicians -- all intended to curb smoking among minority teenagers. The first ads will air nationally in conjunction with the 2015 BET Hip-Hop Awards on Oct. 13. They will continue in 36 U.S. markets for at least two years, officials said.
Young people in minority groups traditionally have been at higher risk of becoming addicted to cigarettes and disproportionately suffer the health consequences later in life, said Jonca Bull, the FDA's assistant commissioner for minority health. That's why finding creative ways to reach such teens "is imperative," she said.
FDA officials said that because tobacco use almost always begins during adolescence -- nearly 90 percent of smokers tried their first cigarette by age 18 -- early intervention is critical. The agency said more than 2,600 youth under age 18 try their first cigarette each day in the United States, and nearly 600 become routine smokers. They said research shows an estimated 4.4. million "multicultural" youth are either open to smoking or already experimenting with tobacco.
The trick lies in finding an effective way to counter the lure of smoking. The "hip-hop peer group" is "often hard to reach," said Mitch Zeller, the FDA's top tobacco official, who oversaw the hard-hitting anti-tobacco "Truth" campaign during his tenure at the American Legacy Foundation in the early 2000s.
Zeller said the "Fresh Empire" campaign tries to break through those barriers by reflecting the swagger, launguage and ideals of hip-hop culture. The messengers in the ads also mirror the target audience -- young, multicultural artists, athletes and students.
"We know from our research that remaining in control is an important pillar of hip-hop culture. But smoking represents a loss of control, so tobacco use is actually in conflict with that priority," Zeller said, adding that the new campaign "underscores that important message."
"Fresh Empire" marks the second in a series of efforts by the FDA to educate young people about the dangers of tobacco use, from rural kids to gay teens. A similar campaign aimed at a broader group of at-risk youth, called "The Real Cost," began in February 2014.
Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, with cigarette smoking responsible for an estimated 480,000 deaths per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.