Thursday, July 13, 2006

Are Youth Being Misused by Anti-Smoking Groups at World Conference?

According to a press release issued Tuesday, a group of youth anti-tobacco activists from around the world will hold a press conference and series of protests today, coordinated by groups involved with the World Conference on Tobacco or Health, in which the youths will call on the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to "“take action to reduce smoking in the movies, including requiring an '“R'” rating for any movies with a non-historical depiction of smoking."”

The youth activities will be coordinated with the release of an American Legacy Foundation study regarding the prevalence of smoking in movies popular among youths.

According to the press release, at noon today "“the youth will march to the MPAA headquarters from the Washington Convention Center, where they will be attending the World Conference on Tobacco or Health. The march will follow the release of a study by the American Legacy Foundation earlier Thursday about the prevalence of smoking in movies popular with youth. The youth, from over 30 countries, will also march to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to call on the Administration to keep tobacco products out of trade agreements and to the White House to call on the U.S. and other countries to ratify the international tobacco control treaty... ."”

The Rest of the Story

Parading these kids around Washington D.C. in what appears to be an effort orchestrated by a number of anti-smoking groups to support their agendas has the appearance to me of representing a misuse of youth for our own purposes. It'’s one thing if these youths initiated the idea themselves, organized themselves, and developed their own campaign. But it'’s quite another thing if the anti-smoking groups are the ones who have put together the campaign.

One of the key elements to judging whether or not this is an appropriate use of youths for advocacy purposes is the degree to which these youths were informed of the most relevant issues that they need to consider before deciding whether to participate in such an activity, and in deciding what activities are most appropriate in terms of advocating for decreased portrayal of smoking in movies.

And I think that without a question, the most relevant consideration that these youths should have been informed about is the fact that the American Legacy Foundation, one of the participants in this event, has partnered with the chief culprit of the alleged problem of smoking in movies which these kids are being asked to address.

The American Legacy Foundation has awarded Time Warner a corporate partnership; yet Warner Brothers is the chief source of the portrayal of smoking in movies popular among youths.

One potential approach to the problem of smoking in movies, therefore, would be to protest in front of the American Legacy Foundation headquarters, calling on the Foundation to end its corporate partnership with Time Warner. Yet it is quite clear that this option was not presented to these youths.

Arguably, the single most effective intervention that could be done to address the problem of smoking in movies is for Legacy to announce, in coordination with its release tomorrow of a study bemoaning the problem of smoking in movies, that the Foundation is rescinding its partnership with Time Warner until Warner Brothers takes appropriate action to resolve this problem.

I think it is quite reasonable to suppose that this group of youths might well agree that the American Legacy Foundation'’s actions are hypocritical, that Legacy is in a unique position of influence, and that the ability of this coalition of groups (including the youths) to effect change is severely compromised by Legacy'’s partnership with Time Warner.

In a sense, the youths that will be marching tomorrow are doing so in partnership with Warner Brothers, the chief cause of the very problem that they are trying to address. By virtue of Legacy'’s involvement in the event and Legacy'’s partnership with Time Warner, these kids are tied, whether they like it or not, and whether they know it or not, to the very corporation that is exposing the most youths to the movie depictions of smoking that these youths are attempting to stop.

I think it is likely that the ethical principle of informed consent has been violated in recruiting and organizing these youths to participate in these protests without informing them of all the relevant facts of the situation and providing them with a full set of potential options that they can consider.

The way these kids are being paraded around D.C. in support of specific policies has the smell of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids'’ involvement, since this is precisely the kind of behavior that I have observed from the Campaign in the past. I do not know if Tobacco-Free Kids is involved (and I am not accusing them of coordinating the event), but it certainly wouldn'’t surprise me if they had some role in it. It just has that odor to it.

It is unconscionable to me that the American Legacy Foundation could have the gall to publicly bemoan what they are calling a serious public health problem -– youth exposure to smoking in the movies -– while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the chief culprit -– Time Warner -– in a corporate partnership that is lucrative to Warner Brothers in terms of the positive public image that it brings to the company and the extent to which it takes pressure off of Warner Brothers to do anything to resolve this problem.

It is simply unfair to involve the youths in this level of profound hypocrisy, especially without their apparent consent to be misused in this way.

Before anyone jump to the conclusion that I agree with the testimony of anti-smoking advocates that smoking in movies causes something like 100,000 kids to start smoking each year and is responsible for 38% of youth smoking, I should make it clear that I believe these numbers have been greatly exaggerated and that the bold conclusions regarding the impact of smoking in the movies on youth smoking initiation are not only over-stated, but also somewhat premature.

But the point is not whether there is a causal link between smoking in the movies and youth smoking. The point is simply whether the actions of Legacy are internally consistent. They are not. Regardless of what the proper interpretation of the science is, you cannot bemoan the problem of smoking in the movies on the one hand and partner with Time Warner on the other, and not come out looking like a hypocrite. Frankly, it'’s starting to look a little bit stupid for Legacy to continuously come out with these reports and ultimatums about getting smoking out of the movies and to at the same time enjoy its corporate partnership with the company that is responsible for the bulk of the alleged problem.

The tobacco control movement has enough problems with its scientific integrity. We don'’t need to create problems with our ethical integrity by misusing kids to serve our political and lobbying purposes without an adequate process of full disclosure and informed consent. We don'’t need to thrust them into the middle of our own hypocrisy.

Hey -– I thought we were supposed to be doing everything for the good of the kids. Why are we misusing them to serve our own purposes?

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