By Toni Clarke
WASHINGTON, Feb 4 (Reuters) - A major new anti-tobacco campaign will be launched in the United States next week aimed at vulnerable teenagers at risk of becoming addicted to cigarettes.
The $115 million campaign, to be overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, will target the 10 million young people aged 12 to 17 who are open to trying cigarettes or who are already experimenting with them and are in danger of becoming regular smokers, the FDA said. There were about 25 million children in that age group in 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
The campaign is the first of several scheduled to be launched over the next two years. The others will be directed at rural, gay, African American, and American Indian youth.
The campaigns are expected to cost $400 million altogether. They are being funded with fees paid to the FDA by the tobacco industry under a 2009 law that gives the FDA authority to regulate cigarettes, cigarette tobacco and roll-your-own tobacco.
The goal of the initiative is to reduce the number of youth cigarette smokers by at least 300,000 within three years, the FDA said.
The first campaign, called "The Real Cost," will launch on Feb. 11 and targets marginalized youngsters who may be starting to turn to tobacco as a way of coping with poor or stressful lives, Mitch Zeller, head of the FDA's tobacco products division, said at a media briefing on Monday.
The ads will appear in print and on TV and radio as well as on billboards and at bus stops, addressing typical teenage issues such as concerns with appearance and the desire to strike out and become independent.
One series of ads features a bully who demands money. A print ad shows a small, greasy-haired bully standing inside a school locker yelling, "Outside Now, Punk." The tag line says: "You wouldn't take it from a tiny bully, but when you're hooked on tobacco, you're taking it from a cigarette."
Another series of ads focuses on the cosmetic damage cigarettes can cause, especially to the skin and teeth.
In one TV ad a young girl goes into a convenience store to buy a packet of cigarettes. She hands over the money but the clerk says "it's not enough." The girl reaches up and peels a large piece of skin off her face and slides it across the counter.
In a similar ad a young man asks for a packet of menthol cigarettes. When told by the clerk that the money is not enough he takes a wrench, pulls out one of his teeth, and hands that over too.
The ads, which were created by the advertising agency DraftFCB, a unit of Interpublic Group, have been rigorously tested with the target audience, Zeller said, adding that he is very optimistic they will achieve the desired results of turning some kids away from smoking.
The American Academy of Pediatrics welcomed the FDA's efforts to counter to what it termed the "multitude of influences" that push kids toward smoking.
"We need a fresh campaign, based on the best evidence about communicating with teens in their own space and on their own terms," AAP President Dr. James Perrin said in a statement on Tuesday.
To judge whether campaign is successful, the FDA plans to monitor 8,000 young people over two years to measure changes in attitudes toward tobacco and on behavior before and after the campaign's launch.
Each day, more than 3,200 people under the age of 18 try their first cigarette and more than 700 become daily smokers, the FDA said.
Ninety percent of adult smokers start smoking before the age of 18, "which is why early intervention is so critical," FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said at the briefing.
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an advocacy group, said in a statement on Tuesday that the FDA's campaign "will ensure that the media designed to prevent at-risk young people from using tobacco are of the same quality and use the same cutting-edge marketing techniques that the tobacco industry has long used to attract them."
The first campaign does not cover electronic cigarettes, which the FDA does not currently regulate, though that will likely change. The agency is expected to shortly issue proposed regulations to extend its authority to e-cigarettes and cigars. The proposed regulations are currently being reviewed by the White House's Office of Management and Budget.