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Tobacco wars have willing soldiers
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 28, 2000
D.J. Reinhard has a closet full of T-shirts at his home in Lutz.
They say "SWAT." They say "TRUTH." They speak to his dedication to keeping children away from tobacco.
There's just one thing: Reinhard, 14, is entering Blake High School in two weeks. Recruited into Students Working Against Tobacco back in middle school, he now faces a whole new environment. "It's a different kind of scene. Back in middle school, everyone looked up to me."
Should he wear the shirts? Should he try and help organize a SWAT chapter at Blake?
"I don't think I'll be ashamed or afraid," he says, having pondered the question. "It's worth a shot." As a SWAT member, he says, "you have the potential to save lives."
Such is the fervor of the student war against tobacco -- a bit evangelical, a bit militant and maybe somewhat cultish, but nevertheless sincere.
As a class action suit against the cigarette industry took center stage in Miami this summer, a grass roots war has continued in places like this second-floor meeting room of the West Tampa Boys & Girls Club.
Using money from a 1997 tobacco settlement, SWAT goes after the hearts and minds of children, here in this summer camp and elsewhere. Those clever "Truth" spots you see on television? They're a joint effort of SWAT youth and advertising professionals. T-shirts? Rulers? Khaki hats? Kids designed them, too.
They get some supervision from adults such as Kevin Collado, the Hillsborough SWAT adviser, and from sponsors at their 22 chapters countywide.
But always, the emphasis is on kids' ideas and kids' presentations -- "teach, not preach," as D.J. describes it. The logic is that young people will respond to other young people, absorbing information that would fall on deaf ears if it were delivered by adults.
"It doesn't work to tell a young person: "Don't Smoke,' " says a report from the Florida Tobacco Pilot Program, a state effort of which SWAT is a component. "The most effective campaigns have teens telling their peers: "Don't let the tobacco industry trick you into smoking.' "
So it goes in this West Tampa session, where D.J. and Collado's daughters, Shirley and Caroline, hold the children's full attention.
"We're not against people who smoke," D.J. tells them. "We're against the tobacco companies for trying to trick you. How many of you have seen those pictures of the beautiful women smoking cigarettes? If you've seen a real woman smoking, she isn't that pretty and her teeth aren't that perfect. Ever see the Marlboro Man? Well, he died."
"Twice," Caroline Collado interjects.
"They had to hire a second Marlboro man and he died, too," D.J. continues.
The information comes rapid-fire. Smoking is like drinking out of your toilet (cigarettes contain the same chemical used in toilet bowl cleaners). Smokers sometimes have to have their tongues cut out. ("Ugh!!" the group shrieks at that image.)
They're given straws the size of coffee stirrers and told to hold their noses, pinch the center of the straws and try to breathe from them.
"That's what emphysema feels like," Caroline tells them.
More tobacco facts are thrown at the children, then the interactive part begins. In a "'scavenger hunt," they search SWAT's anti-tobacco posters, displayed on the walls, for words beginning with letters from A to Z. The winners get prizes: T-shirts, hats, lanyards, dog tag necklaces, pins.
More prizes go to kids who ask questions. Then comes a raffle for more prizes -- more T-shirts and hats and lanyards and other SWAT memorabilia.
For this full hour, the audience is totally focused on the message, on how disgusting it is to drink from a toilet, on how lousy it feels to breathe through a coffee stirrer, on how shameful it is that cigarettes are sold freely in stores.
They jump for joy when they "win" a Truth hat or T-shirt.
It's gimmickry, crass marketing, but so what? No one -- least of all the SWAT people -- is bothered that they are meeting Big Tobacco on its own turf.
SWAT kids say that through a massive write-in campaign, they persuaded Philip Morris to stop advertising in Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and other magazines with a high teen readership. Smokers' attorney Stanley Rosenblatt suspects the tobacco giant was actually trying to soften the Miami jury. (It didn't work: The jury ordered a $145-billion award.)
Closer to home, SWAT persuaded the Hillsborough County Commission to draft an ordinance that would limit the way stores can display tobacco products. A public hearing is expected this fall.
But the proof, supporters say, is in smoking rates.
Citing a 20,000-person annual survey, the state says high school-age smoking has dropped 24 percent in the two years, and middle school smoking has dropped by 54 percent.
You may or may not believe those numbers, but here are more to ponder, some of them coming from the U.S. Surgeon General.
Nearly 90 percent of adult daily smokers began before they were 18.
And tobacco use is as high in eighth grade as it is in high school.
SWAT chapters exist at Gaither High School, Carrollwood Day School and Buchanan Middle School. For information, call Collado at 273-7303 or visit SWAT on the web at: http://www.hcswat.com.
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