The state spent $900,000 on the development of an anti-smoking campaign aimed at teens and children. But an 11th-hour decision by state officials resulted in the centerpiece, a series of television commercials, being yanked before they ever made the air.
Now, some health officials are criticizing the decision and say it may compromise the effectiveness of a public-awareness campaign two years in the making.
“You’ve already made this huge investment,” said Susan Gerard, the former director of the state health department that oversaw the campaign. “This is a waste of so many resources, so many man-hours of work … It’s really a shame.”
The series of three 30-second TV spots was intended to debut Nov. 20 to coincide with the Great American Smokeout, a national kick-the-habit effort.
But the ads were never broadcast following a decision by the Arizona Department of Health Services, which worked with Gov. Janet Napolitano’s office to produce the campaign. State officials say they began to question the cost-effectiveness of running the ads on TV, for which nearly $2 million was budgeted for airtime. The ads instead will be available online at anti-tobacco Web sites. But some health advocates question whether the health department’s reversal, which was endorsed by the Governor’s Office, was more about public relations than public health.
The state is facing a $1.2 billion shortfall this fiscal year, an amount that may double next year. Some health officials believe the anti-tobacco ads were canned to prevent the perception that the state was spending millions of dollars on advertisements during a budget crisis.
Funding for the ads was to come from tobacco taxes approved by voters and specifically set aside for anti-smoking efforts, and therefore could not be used, for example, toward the general fund.
January Contreras, director of the state health department, said there may be a better way to spend the money than to air the ads. But that decision has not yet been made, he said.
“It’s our responsibility to make sure we’re reviewing this carefully, and we’re making decisions that are smart and make the most sense in today’s economy,” she said. “No matter how that funding is used, it will be used for the purpose of youth tobacco-prevention efforts. It’s not as though any of the work that has been done will go to waste.”
On Nov. 18, when it became clear that the ads wouldn’t air on TV, officials from the American Lung Association of Arizona, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the American Heart Association sent a letter to Napolitano urging her to launch the campaign.
“Your record in leading the fight against tobacco, both personally and as a public official, is remarkable,” the letter stated. “It is with this in mind that we are incredibly alarmed to learn that your administration has decided to cancel Arizona’s new youth smoking-prevention campaign . . . ”
Jan Lesher, Napolitano’s chief of staff, responded with a letter noting that the bulk of the campaign will continue and defending the decision to cancel the TV ads.
“The vast majority of the campaign as originally planned continues to move forward,” Lesher wrote. “It does incorporate a Web site and Web-related outreach strategies to reach the settings where many of today’s youth spend their free time.”
The ads are part of a $7 million anti-tobacco campaign developed by health officials who hosted forums and town halls across Arizona, said Gerard, now vice-chairwoman of Maricopa Integrated Health System’s board.
Phoenix advertising and public-relations firm Riester produced the TV ads, but the state health department was unable Friday to determine how much the state paid for the work. Officials also did not release a copy of the commercials, saying they had not yet been approved.
Laura Oxley, a spokeswoman for the state health department, said the commercials may not appear only online, but could also be shown in schools.
That’s not enough, said Bob England, director of Maricopa County Department of Public Health. More than 500 kids start smoking in Arizona each month. Statistically, half eventually will die from it, he said. Aggressive, provocative TV ads are the best way to reach teens with the truths about smoking and addiction, England said.
“Marketing is the most crucial piece when we’re talking about teenage smoking,” he said. “The goal of the . . . TV advertisements is to create a buzz and drive kids to the Web site and to other materials so the whole thing can work together. If you try to do a marketing campaign, or other types of prevention activities without a good media piece, the science is really clear: You won’t get that synergy, it won’t work.”
Bill Pfeifer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Southwest, said he was still hopeful state officials would reconsider their decision.
“They were really ready to go, but for whatever reason the Governor’s Office said, ‘No we don’t want to run those ads,’ ” he said. “This is about saving lives – in particular, young people’s lives – and (to) hopefully keep them from smoking.”
By Matthew Benson, Yvonne Wingett