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SWAT > News and Events > Students Shining Light on Tobacco Greed

Mark J. Crawford, Telegraph Staff Writer
May 20, 2004

SWAT, the organization Students Working Against Tobacco, is asking a chilling question of anyone who hasn't considered how far an industry might go to raise money.

The question: What would you do for $51 billion?

The $51 billion in question - as one can learn from visiting the Web site publicized by SWAT's latest campaign, www.51billion.com - was profit realized by just one of the country's leading tobacco company's in a single year.

So what did Philip Morris do for that kind of bankroll?

SWAT contends that Philip Morris and all tobacco companies have:

  • Lied about the effects of tobacco use and, in doing so, misled the public about tobacco's hazards.
  • Purchased support for their industry from politicians.
  • Deceived the public about the "safety" of "light" cigarettes.
  • Sold a product that allegedly kills 420,000 Americans each year.

But SWAT's biggest complaint by far is the money tobacco companies have spent to target youth in the marketing of their products, and it has been that organization's goal to let kids know they are being manipulated.

SWAT's campaign is statewide but it is being led locally by the group at Bradford High School, which includes 17-year-olds Rose Rezaei and Mitchell Anderson.

According to Anderson, $22 million a day is spent by Philip Morris on youth-targeted advertisements.

"We basically just want to let people know that, you know what, you've been manipulated into using this product that's killing you, and they're making billions and billions of dollars off it," Anderson said.

Rezaei said this campaign has incorporated two phases. In the first, the public was teased with the question of what it would do for $51 billion through radio spots, posters and other promotional items in order to grow interest.
Now in phase two, the informative phase, SWAT members have been directly posing the hypothetical question to individuals as a way of then telling them how tobacco companies spend their dough.

Rezaei said much of that money is now spent on public image promotion with "feel-good campaigns" to make themselves look responsible to consumers.
"They're trying to make themselves look great," Rezaei said. "Philip Morris actually changed their whole entire company name to Altria (in 2003), which is a huge move. Companies just don't do that because it disassociates themselves (from their products). But if you're the tobacco industry, that's exactly what you want."

Altria is not only the parent company of Philip Morris USA and Philip Morris International but also of Kraft Foods. Because of that, Anderson said Kraft products can't be found in his home either.

Bradford County SWAT members carried their message to the Suwannee River Music Festival recently where Anderson said a Philip Morris stockholder was among the many people they talked to.

"That was interesting," Rezaei said. "He looked me straight in the eye and said, 'I don't care.'"

Such grass-roots activism has been particularly important this year and last. Anti-tobacco groups have never had the financial backing tobacco companies have, but last year the state legislature slashed $39 million for tobacco education programs down to just $1 million. Tobacco education did no better in next year's state budget either.

Considering tobacco education was originally funded at $70 million a year, SWAT has had to adjust to restricted resources.

Staff has been laid off, Rezaei said, placing a larger burden on volunteers and resulting in reduced participation. They have lost an office, and now organize themselves out of members' houses or churches. The high school has maintained a core of around 10 committed participants among its total membership, Anderson said. The 150-plus members at Bradford Middle School, however, have been left behind without an adult to organize them to action.

The group has had local success in the recent past convincing government commissions to require that all tobacco-related merchandise be kept behind the sales counter, although Anderson said in some stores tobacco products can still be found above the candy. Overall, however, businesses have complied.
Funded or not, SWAT members are still optimistic about what they can accomplish.

"I don't think it's going to affect what we do," Anderson said. "I think it's going to affect how we do it."

The message is there regardless of the resources, he said.

Lack of advertising dollars may affect the number of people that can be reached at once, but Rezaei and Anderson agreed that SWAT will ultimately be made stronger.

"It has had a huge impact on the amount of things we've been able to do, but I think now the things that we do we put more in to," Anderson said.

It also means the program is now run by and for kids, which both agreed serves to increase the chance other kids will be open to what SWAT has to say.

It isn't simply information on the risks of habits like smoking that SWAT is interested in disseminating. SWAT is about spreading indignation among kids that tobacco companies treat them as just another target group in the quest for profit and that ultimately it is their health that suffers.

"We're not telling you you don't have to, you don't need to (smoke). We're just saying they have targeted you and, apparently, they've won," Anderson said.

"They've made their quota," Rezaei said. "That's all they are to them."

Rezaei pointed to county statistics available from the Florida Department of Health that show tobacco use among kids slightly higher than the state average. The most recent report is from 2002, and shows that the number of students in the county using any form of tobacco was at 23.1 percent compared to the state's 19.1 percent. Cigarettes were smoked by 17.7 percent, while 8.1 percent admitted to using smokeless tobacco.

Still, 46.9 percent of Bradford students classified themselves as "committed never smokers" and the study claims that they are less receptive to tobacco advertisements than their counterparts around the state.

SWAT's future locally will depend on new recruitment.

"We have several active members, but they're older. They're all going to graduate and move on to other areas," Rezaei said. "So, I think a lot of it is recruiting new and young people for the job who are interested. And then they'll carry on, and they'll carry on, so it never will die."

According to these two, the benefits of involvement go further than the satisfaction that comes from fighting tobacco companies. Signing on includes a commitment to participate with other teens at the local and state levels, but that commitment provides a number of opportunities for personal growth.

"Leadership skills," Anderson said. "Before I got involved in this I had no idea how to run something... And also, it's a lot easier for me to talk to people now. I have better people skills... It has helped me a lot when it comes to developing personally as a leader and a public speaker."

"To me," Rezaei said, "it's mostly the youth empowerment skills - just to know that because I'm not 18 doesn't mean I can't change my world."