The federal government has just about abandoned anti-smoking public service announcements on TV and radio, leaving that job to a few aggressive states.
The average American may be seeing the lowest level of anti-smoking messages in a generation.
The government is finding it harder and harder to place PSAs in desirable time slots. Despite the current furor over smoking, tobacco has lost some of its menace when stacked up against other threats to modern society.
"If you are not AIDS and not the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the chances of people seeing your spot are very slim," said Jeff McKenna, chief of the public information branch of the Centers for Disease Control's Office on Smoking & Health, the federal agency that oversees anti-smoking programs.
One recent study done by the agency suggests that while health officials' main goal is to prevent youths from smoking, most of the few anti-smoking commercials that are appearing do so when a teen audience is unlikely.
"We are really disappointed in the coverage by broadcast TV," Mr. McKenna said. "Our secondhand smoke study said 67% of our spots played from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and only 3% in prime time. Even the ones aimed at kids aren't shown when kids watch TV."
The agency's concern has led it to consider abandoning all its anti-smoking advertising.
"The question is whether we should be putting this money into commercials," Mr. McKenna said. "Should we be using it to do public relations and news media?"
The CDC hasn't bailed out completely. It now has campaigns on secondhand smoke and a campaign aimed at African-Americans. Arian, Lowe, Travis & Gusick, Chicago, handles.
The time slots that are allocated to PSAs aren't the only problem at TV stations. The stations are also running less public service advertising in general.
"PSA time has definitely been decreasing," said Linda Kirby, director of public affairs for WTHR-TV in Indianapolis and president of the National Broadcasters Association for Community Affairs.
But Ms. Kirby said in their selection of PSAs, TV stations are also mirroring consumer priorities.
"When you look at the issues in the communities across the country, smoking is one of those that is not a priority," she said. "Child abuse, kids in gangs and education systems that you are trying to overhaul are very current issues."
At the network level, ABC contends it still runs double the number of PSAs of its two major rivals combined, but it devotes a third to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, a third to its own Project Learning U.S. and then uses the other third for other groups.
The scarcity of anti-smoking PSAs on the airwaves is a nugget of good news for the tobacco industry. After all, it was anti-smoking spots-not lawmakers-that drove tobacco ads off TV.
The large number of anti-smoking spots running in the 1960s rose sharply in 1969, when a Federal Communication Commission ruling forced broadcasters to start running the ads as an "equal time" balance to smoking advertising. One anti-smoking ad aired for every three or four smoking ads.
And the anti-smoking spots were tough. The spots of the late 1960s embraced such tactics as featuring an actor dying of lung cancer-"Perry Mason" star Bill Talman in 1967-to get across their message that cigarettes kill.
The tobacco industry in 1971 responded to the pressure by yanking all its ads off the air, leaving the fate of anti-smoking ads in broadcasters' hands.
Some tobacco industry critics charge that after the move, the tobacco industry used its influence to see anti-smoking messages weren't placed on TV, radio or in magazines.
"The ads that aired were available to continue airing. There were plenty recorded. They didn't make it on TV," said Susan Islam, director of the American Cancer Society. "It wasn't a plot by the tobacco companies, but a natural occurrence because Philip Morris and RJR are among TV's largest advertisers, and in any business, you want to cater to the biggest advertisers. We have hundreds of ads. We can't get them aired."
Others say anti-tobacco messages simply fell victim to broadcasting trends, most obviously a decrease in the total number of PSAs run on TV and radio. When the FCC dropped strict requirements on maximum commercial time and for logging PSAs, TV stations increased both advertising and self-promotion.
Even the anti-smoking groups themselves are letting up on their PSA assaults.
The American Cancer Society still does its annual November Smokeout campaign but does fewer big campaigns.
"We have moved into other arenas," Ms. Islam said. "We want to do other things in addition to large ad campaigns that may not see the light of day."
The American Lung Association abandoned anti-smoking advertising in 1988.
"There was a growing realization that advertising alone wasn't going to do the job," said Elaine Chapnick, deputy managing director for communications.
The American Heart Association still does print and radio ads, but dropped TV several years ago.
"We look at TV ads as broader positioning ads for the heart association," said Brigid McHugh Sanner, VP-communications. "We wanted to take a positive lifestyle message."
That's not enough for some states like California and Massachusetts, which pay to air anti-smoking messages. Both states claim smoking rates dropped quickly after their anti-smoking ad initiatives began running.
California voters in 1989 approved a referendum to raise cigarette taxes in part to pay for an anti-smoking ad campaign and related public health efforts, and the state said its annual $12 million in advertising contributed to a 12% decrease in smoking. Asher/Gould, Los Angeles, currently handles.
The California campaign includes an unusual element: a no-holds-barred attack on the tobacco industry paid for by taxpayers. In one spot, a group of tobacco executives chortle over trying to lure new smokers. In another, a man lit in blue, smiles evilly as he tries to get people to smoke. A third features a man in a limousine switching his glance between a TV showing tobacco executives' denials at a hearing and people outside smoking.
"Anti-smoking is not a sexy issue," said Colleen Stevens, chief of the state's tobacco media campaign. "Almost everyone knows tobacco is addictive. Almost everyone knows it is slow suicide. We had to do something to excite the issue."
If the federal government drops production and distribution of its own new advertising, it plans to distribute California's advertising to other states.
Massachusetts, which began its $8 million yearlong anti-smoking campaign last October and claims to get an additional $4 million in bonus placements, said cigarette sales dropped 15% once it began PR efforts that culminated in the advertising.
A main campaign uses the "It's time we made smoking history" theme, with other efforts aimed at youth and secondhand smoking. Houston, Effler & Partners, Boston, handles Massachusetts' anti-smoking ads.
A study done by the University of Vermont and based on $2 million four-year efforts in Vermont and Montana also seemed to document the effectiveness of anti-smoking advertising. Youths in homes receiving the ads showed less likelihood of taking up smoking.
Several other states have tried much smaller programs.
Mr. McKenna of the CDC said Vermont and Montana tests seem to show that advertising doesn't have to be that extensive to work, just constant and in the right time slots.
"If we could come up with $30 million, we could help, especially with kids," he said.