California Department of Health Services, Tobacco Control Section

Author:Mariko Fujinaka, Mark Lane

Page 243

MS 7206

PO Box 997413

Sacramento, California 95899-7413


Telephone: (916) 449-5000

Web site:


For decades tobacco manufacturers had glamorized smoking through widespread marketing campaigns and promotions, but as the negative health effects of such behavior grew increasingly clear toward the end of the twentieth century, health officials in the United States sought to educate the public about the ills of tobacco. California was the first to organize a statewide advertising and education effort, one that was funded by smokers themselves through a state-legislated cigarette tax. Between 1989, when the campaign first began, and 1997, California spent almost $116 million on antitobacco advertising. Although this was a significant amount, it paled in comparison to the ad budgets of leading tobacco makers, which spent several billion dollars a year on advertising.

In 1997 the California Department of Health Services (CDHS) stepped up its efforts in the antitobacco battle by launching an estimated $67 million, three-year advertising campaign designed to reduce and prevent smoking among youths and adults. The aggressive campaign, developed by Asher & Partners (Asher/Gould Advertising, Inc., until late 1997) of Los Angeles, consisted of television, radio, and print advertising, including billboard ads. Ads geared toward minorities and specific ethnic groups were also included in the campaign. These were created by specialty agencies Imada Wong Communications Group Inc., Valdes Zacky and Associates Inc., and Carol H. Williams Advertising.

The following year, in June 1998, the second phase of the three-year effort was launched. The approximately $22 million campaign again consisted of an extensive series of print, television, and radio ads that focused on bringing to light the manipulative marketing practices of the tobacco industry, the dangers of secondhand smoke, and the link between smoking and impotency. This last topic was the focus of one of the best-known television spots of the campaign, "Gala Event," which suggested to the male audience that smoking could adversely affect their sex lives. The campaign also focused on the increasing popularity of cigars and on the smoke-free bar and restaurant policy that was implemented in the state at the beginning of 1998. Kim Belsh, the director of California's DHS, explained the overall goal of the campaign in an interview with Daniel Zwerdling of National Public Radio, stating that "the whole focus of our media campaign is really to de-normalize tobacco use. And de-normalizing tobacco use means changing the perception of tobacco from something that is viewed as acceptable and even glamorous to a more realistic

Page 244

The "Truth vs. Advertising" print ad from the "Antitobacco" campaign aimed at making cigarette smoking less glamorous. California Department of Health Services. Reproduced by Permission. perception of tobacco as dangerous, addictive, and socially unacceptable."

In 1998 California voters passed Proposition 99, an initiative that increased the tax on tobacco by 25 cents per pack of cigarettes, with the revenue to be used to fund antitobacco programs and healthcare services for underprivileged residents. In that year about 26.7 percent of Californians were smokers. The percentage declined rapidly as the tax-funded media effort began churning out aggressive advertising, and by 1995 only 16.7 percent of Californians smoked. The rate began to rise, however, when the administration of California governor Pete Wilson diverted $67 million in antitobacco funds in 1994 to pay for failing healthcare projects. In addition, television spots with an anti-industry tone, including one that featured tobacco industry executives testifying before the U.S. Congress that nicotine was not addictive, were discontinued because of pressure from the tobacco industry. Although antitobacco efforts continued, they were toned down both in character and in number, and in 1996, 18.6 percent of California adults smoked. The change in advertising, reported a research team from the University of California at San Francisco, led to an increase in tobacco sales between 1994 and 1998 of more than $1 billion, or an additional 840 million packs of cigarettes. Also alarming were statistics for young smokers. In 1992, according to the DHS, 8.7 percent of Californians aged 12 to 17 smoked. In 1995 the percentage was up to 11.9 percent. A survey conducted by the tobacco research center at the University of California at San Diego found that the percentage of youths aged 17 who were addicted to cigarettes had risen from 9.9 percent in 1993 to 12 percent three years later.

The increase in the number of California smokers, though considerably less than the national population of adult smokers, which hovered around 25 percent, was still cause for alarm among antitobacco activists, and many criticized the Wilson administration. Alan C. Henderson of the American Cancer Society of California said in the Los Angeles Times, "The Legislature and the governor need to wake up and smell the secondhand smoke. This is an embarrassment to the state that has been the leader in

Page 245

A still from the "Gala Event" television ad aimed at desexualizing smoking. California Department of Health Services. Reproduced by Permission. fighting tobacco." In response, the Wilson administration established a three-year contract with Asher & Partners to produce a major media campaign. In 1997, after some delays, the CDHS launched its first new advertising campaign since 1995 as a part of plans to reinvigorate the fight against tobacco. Sandra Smoley, secretary of California's Health and Welfare Agency, announced in a press release, "This advertising is some of the most aggressive, hard-hitting material that California's tobacco education media campaign has ever produced … These ads prove, once and for all, that this Administration is wholly committed to the anti-tobacco cause."

The CDHS aimed its antitobacco advertising toward a number of audiences, but the agency primarily hoped to sway youths, including those who smoked and those who were susceptible to starting. More than 100,000 youths, a study at the University of California at San Diego discovered, took up smoking each year, and one-third of them would die from smoking-related diseases such as heart disease, cancer, or emphysema. Other studies indicated that it would take most of the addicted youths 16 to 20 years to quit smoking, and that almost 90 percent of smokers picked up the habit before reaching the age of

Page 246

18. If youths made it past 18 without smoking, chances were high that they would not start. The studies made it glaringly clear to the CDHS that it was necessary to try to prevent teen smoking.

To effectively address youths, who often felt invincible and were not easily persuaded by advertising, it was important, researchers found, to inform them that the tobacco industry was trying to control them. One 1997 ad, "Voicebox Smoker," featured Debi Austin, a woman who began smoking at the age of 13. The spot, shot when she was 46, showed a hole in her throat where her larynx had been cut out because of her smoking habit. Still, Austin had not quit smoking; she smoked through the hole. She explained in the commercial, "When I found out how bad smoking was, I tried to stop. Believe me. I wish I could. But I can't." Belsh, discussed the strategy behind the ad in USA Today, saying, "You need to push emotional buttons … You need to give kids real evidence that they're being manipulated by the tobacco industry."

The CDHS targeted adult smokers with its media campaign as well, with ads focusing not only on the harm inflicted upon the smoker but also on the damage caused to loved ones and others through secondhand smoke. For the 1998 campaign...

To continue reading