In hard-hitting ad campaign, Philly targets tobacco industry marketing practices

3 x 2 tobacco ads
Advertisements such as this one are being placed in SEPTA vehicles and at bus stops by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

On ads inside SEPTA buses and subway cars, a giant, cuff-link-adorned hand representing the tobacco industry plucks a black teenager from a line of friends, leaving the chalk outline of the teen's body behind.

"Our children are not replacement smokers!" a protest leader cries in a radio spot. "We have the power!" the crowd responds - which is exactly the point of this unusually aggressive new campaign targeting the tobacco industry's heavy marketing in low-income and African American neighborhoods.

Philadelphia's "Break the Cycle" public-health campaign uses dramatic statistics, photos, and maps to press its case that the industry positions its products for sale near candy and plasters ads on corner stores near schools to ensure a continuing line of "replacement smokers," a term quoted from a tobacco industry document.

One section of a multimedia exploration, titled "On the Way to School I Saw . . . ," imagines a 13-year-old's 15-minute walk to Russell Conwell Middle School in Kensington. Over three-quarters of a mile he passes 16 stores that sell tobacco. You can zoom in on the map to identify each retailer. Click for photos, most showing cigarette ads on storefront windows.

Philadelphia has 3,455 active tobacco retailers, according to city data, more than double the number per capita as Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles.

A city analysis of licenses found that lower-income zip codes had two-thirds more tobacco retailers per capita than higher-income zip codes, and three-quarters more within 1,000 feet of a school.

"They are not just selling them. They are marketing them, and marketing them to our children," said city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley. "I think that people should be quite unhappy and even outraged about the amount of marketing of this killer product in low-income neighborhoods by companies who want nothing more than to make a profit off people getting sick."

Generating indignation is the right way to go, especially with adolescents, said Amy B. Jordan, a youth and media researcher at the Annenberg School for Communication.

"If they feel that they are being manipulated by a corporation, they are more likely to resist the [tobacco industry's] messages," she said.

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health developed the campaign (www.smokefreephilly.org) and will run social-media messages and ads on radio and public transit through September. The Health Promotion Council, an independent nonprofit, was so impressed that it adapted the transit car cards as gas pump toppers. It is expanding the message through broadcast and Pandora internet radio, Facebook, and Instagram - most targeted by some combination of age, ethnicity, and zip code - in seven other Southeastern Pennsylvania counties.

Antismoking campaigns that tug at emotions are nothing new. But they have never been used in this region, and rarely, if ever, focus on marketing in minority communities.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids cites research in several cities that found tobacco is advertised more aggressively in black neighborhoods.

Amy Hillier, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design, reported last year that field visits and examination of online photos of all licensed tobacco retailers in Philadelphia found that outlets with exterior tobacco ads were clustered in high-poverty sections of Kensington and in North and South Philadelphia.

Vendors that accepted food stamps were far more likely to display ads, though the disparity could be due in part to low-income areas' high number of small corner stores.

The 1998 master settlement between tobacco companies and state attorneys general banned certain advertising practices, which is why the Marlboro Man no longer gazes down from billboards on I-95.

"So the tobacco industry has shifted to working with corner stores," Hillier said, negotiating prices "in exchange for window space."

Marla Gold, a member of the city Board of Health, said she wanted to stress that "it is not the retailers themselves who are evil." Antismoking measures are a balancing act, she said. "How do you do this while at the same time not putting these people out of business?"

The tobacco industry spent 93 percent of its nearly $9 billion in marketing expenditures in 2013 at what is called the point of sale, which includes ads and price discounts, according to the Federal Trade Commission. That included $454 million in Pennsylvania - an estimated $54 million of it in Philadelphia.

The city said its antismoking campaign cost $191,000, all from the master tobacco settlement. The Health Promotion Council's piggyback suburban campaign will cost $150,000, also from the master settlement, said Jamie Magee, director of tobacco control services.

Pennsylvania's adult smoking rate - nearly 20 percent, according to federal data - is well above the national average. Philadelphia's is among the highest of major cities. Disparities by neighborhood - 27 percent in low-income zip codes vs. 17 percent in more affluent areas - roughly mirror differences in tobacco retailer density and advertising. Plus, poverty and race are known to independently influence smoking rates.

More than 2,000 deaths a year in the city are attributed to smoking-related causes. That's eight times the number of firearms homicides, "or about 53 SEPTA buses full," according to the city's interactive site.

Asked about the campaign, Jane Seccombe, a spokeswoman for tobacco giant Reynolds-American Inc., said in an email that "we welcome youth tobacco prevention initiatives like this," adding that "our companies are guided by the belief that no minors should use tobacco products of any kind, and do not market to youth."

David Sutton, a spokesman for Altria Group Inc., said by email that adult smokers who are concerned about health effects should quit and that the company offers retailers financial incentives to avoid placing cigarettes where children can see them.

Experts say that reducing smoking rates requires a series of actions. Although it has not followed some cities in raising the minimum age for purchases from 18 to 21, Philadelphia City Council increased fines for underage tobacco sales in 2010 and began restricting how much window space can be devoted to any kind of advertising a few years later.

It raised the cigarette tax by $2 a pack to aid city schools in 2014. And $1 more will be added statewide starting Aug. 1 to help balance the budget. Philadelphia's combined tax of $4.60 will be the third-highest of the nation's biggest cities, after Chicago and New York. (The rest of Pennsylvania will pay $2.60; New Jersey taxes at $2.70 a pack.)

Much of the city's new campaign is aimed at teens because research shows that 90 percent of adult smokers began by age 18.

"Once they start, that's it. They're hooked," said Jennifer Ibrahim, an associate professor in Temple University's College of Public Health who researches tobacco control and industry tactics.

dsapatkin@phillynews.com

215-854-2617

@DonSapatkin