The National Association of Attorneys General, which at first announced it would reserve judgement about the book covers that show children on snowboards and skis and warn them "Don't Wipe Out. Think. Don't Smoke," announced Friday it plans to investigate the motives behind the free book cover giveaway by the tobacco giant.
Education and health advocates across the country call the brightly-colored foldover covers a smokescreen that violates a 1998 ban on tobacco advertising to children.
The critics charge the covers attempt to link Philip Morris' name more to fun in the snow than to any "don't smoke" message.
Most of all, they object to the images which make up the art for the book covers.
"The snowboard looks like a lit match. The clouds look like smoke. The mountains look like mounds of tobacco at an auction," said Gerald Kilbert, who directs the California Education Department's Healthy Kids Program. "The tobacco industry is still up to their old tricks of trying to attract children using different techniques."
Students and teachers have complained about the covers, part of 26 million produced last year for the cigarette maker and sent free to 43,000 schools nationwide.
"Who is Philip Morris kidding when they say they don't want kids to smoke? Their brand is the most popular among kids, smoked by more kids than all other brands together," said Matthew Myers, the top lawyer for the advocacy group Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, in an interview Friday on the CBS News Early Show.
"These book covers - by their message and the inclusion of the Philip Morris name - if anything will have no effect. At worst, they will have a negative effect," argued Myers. "They divert attention to the fact Philip Morris has not made a change in its marketing."
Philip Morris says its willingness to fight youth smoking should not be judged by the book covers. The maker of Marlboro, Virginia Slims and other popular brands says the covers have no secret message and don't violate the agreement.
"The purpose of these book covers is to expand on the communications part of our comprehensive youth smoking prevention program. These book covers complement the other programs we support," said Carolyn Levy, of Philip Morris' Youth Smoking Prevention program, in an interview on The Early Show.
In a letter Wednesday to the attorneys general, advocates said the Philip Morris covers are "promoting its brand name among schoolchildren" and the campaign "appears to be indirectly promoting tobacco products to them."
"It will take some fairly sophisticated analysis," said Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who oversee enforcement of the state-tobacco agreement. "You are not dealing with direct messages but rather indirect and subliminal messages."
Arizona high school students complained to the state attorney general. The California school superintendent asked principals statewide to keep them away from students. A Rhode Island middle school health counselor tossed them after seeing the cigarette makers' copyright.
"It's like the fox guarding the henhouse," said Carol Hall-Walker, who manages anti-tobacco projects for Rhode Island, where 34 percent of high schoolers smoke. "Their ultimate goal is to sell cigarettes."
Levy defended the distribution of the book covers, claiming market focus group studies conducted by Philip Morris, which spends $100 million a year on government-backed anti-smoking projects and print and television anti-smoking advertising, showed 90 percent of school children understood the message that "they shouldnt smoke."
"More importantly, not a single kid took away a message of smoking," Levy said of the covers, which include sunbursts and other sporting designs.
The covers also include the surgeon general's patent warning against smoking and the company's name in a copyright declaration, Levy said.
In a 1998 settlement for $200 billion with several states, cigarette makers were banned from advertising to underage customers. In the pact between 46 states and the tobacco industry, Philip Morris, along with firms such as R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson, agreed to help states pay for youth anti-smoking campaigns.
Book covers, often required by schools to protect textbooks from excessive wear, are widely distributed by other companies. Primedia, which owns in-school network Channel One, designs and distributes covers for Philip Morris, Kellogg, Walt Disney Co. and Hershey Food Co. among others. No Philip Morris covers are planned for 2001, Primedia said.
"The book covers seek to make Philip Morris a credible messenger," Myers said. "That only enhances its traditional advertising."
Some smoking opponents, wary of any help from tobacco companies, say their ads avoid mention of the harsh realities of smoking like lung cancer.
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