October 30, 2002
by Matt L. Ottinger
You’ve undoubtedly seen the commercials: body bags stacked by the hundreds outside of a tobacco company building; a plastic baby left in a carriage with an index card relating the atrocities of secondhand smoke; and cunning lads attempting to send “arsenic and cyanide” through the mail via a cigar box filled with nothing but cigarettes. These clever public service announcements are the brainchild of the TheTruth.com, an advertising campaign dedicated to educating youngsters about the harmful effects of smoking.
TheTruth.com is the main benefactor of the American Legacy Foundation, created by the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) that ended the four-year lawsuit filed by the state Attorneys General against “Big Tobacco” in 1994. The settlement—which cost taxpayers $40 million in legal fees—required the seven largest tobacco companies to pay $206 billion to several state governments over the next twenty-five years, for the purpose of reimbursing state-run health programs for treating tobacco-related illnesses, regulating tobacco, and educating young people about the dangers of smoking.
In Indiana a similar campaign, Whitelies.tv, has been funded by an organization called Indiana Tobacco Cessation and Prevention (ITCP), also via the MSA. The sardonic spots feature youngsters enthusiastically describing how they hope to die from lung cancer, heart disease, and other tobacco-related diseases.
The ITCP website lists one of its primary goals as “changing the cultural perception and social acceptability of tobacco use in Indiana.” Although no government agency is so far funding these ads with general taxpayer funds, that may not be the case for long. According to Mark Schmidt, director of programs at the National Taxpayers Union, the rush to fund new programs with tobacco money could eventually increase the financial burden on taxpayers in order to continue the programs after the settlement dollars are spent.
“The rationale is clear—have you ever heard of a government program being abolished?” Schmidt said in an interview. “It's a collective action problem, as well. As soon as a program receives government funding, yet another special interest group arises to demand continued funding of their pet program.”
The rationale for government funding has indeed been made clear by its proponents: according to the “Whitelies” website, tobacco-related medical expenditures result in over $1.6 billion a year in Indiana, which comes out to about $275 for every person in the state.
But this statistic reveals that those who do not smoke are already being asked to pay for the ill-health of those that do. Spending additional tax dollars would thus have the perverse effect of further penalizing nonsmokers for the habits of smokers—and would do so as a “public service.”
The Truth.com, “Whitelies,” and similar campaigns across the country are doubtless well intentioned, but it is not at all clear that they are an effective form of public policy. In fact, the ads have the tendency to downplay the importance of individual responsibility by suggesting that young people are the victims of corporate exploitation. That may be the best way to encourage government subsidies, but it isn’t likely to keep kids from smoking.
Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Hudson Institute.
Matt L. Ottinger is the Marketing and Communications intern at the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis.