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The Truth about the American Legacy

The American Legacy Foundation is a non-profit organization, borne out of the landmark 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between the National Association of Attorneys-General and some of the major tobacco product manufacturers of the day. The purpose of this foundation, taken from section VI. of the agreement, is to

"... support (1) the study of and programs to reduce Youth Tobacco Product usage and Youth substance abuse in the States (that is, the participating states in the agreement, which included all but a few -- your ed.) and (2) the study of and educational programs to prevent diseases associated with the use of Tobacco Products in the States."

Or, to take directly from their Web site (www.americanlegacy.org):

"[The American Legacy Foundation] has four goals that guide its work to fight for the health and well-being of all generations by challenging tobacco use in America. The goals include: reducing youth tobacco use, decreasing exposure to second-hand smoke, increasing successful quit rates and reducing disparities in access to prevention and cessation services and in exposure to secondhand smoke."

The master agreement which created Legacy (which was itself founded in March, 1999), by the way, is the same document that banned public, open-air tobacco advertisements (aka, billboards), brand-name endorsements (whether they be of the sports-arena or movie-placement variety), and cartoon characters in advertisements (because, you know, Joe Camel almost convinced me, as an impressionable young'n, that smoking was cool, what with his phallic nose and all). I'm not a lawyer, but if I've interpreted the legalese correctly, they receive something on the order of $30 million dollars from the companies involved in the settlement, and will continue to do so until March 31, 2008.

Legacy is led by a board of directors of eleven seats, the seats filled by two members from each of the National Association of Attorneys-General, the National Governors' Association, and the National Conference of State Legislatures. Yes, that means six of the board are elected officials, and are themselves selected by their "home" organizations. The other five are selected by the first six, of which at least one must be a public health issues expert. The others must have expertise in medicine, child psychology, or public health.

The Foundation is expressly prohibited from political endorsements of any sort; further, its activities are explicitly limited to charitable, scientific, and educational activities through grants and its own advertising and educating programs. Given what I've seen on their Web site, the organization seems transparent, the tests they use seem non-biased, the statistics they cite aren't spun (if a bit myopically selected), so the Foundation seems a quality, well-run organization.

Of course, you probably have never heard of it.

Or that is, I hadn't heard of it, until I read an interview in the local Omaha World-Herald with a student chosen for one of their youth councils, who praised (and sounded to have been raised upon) the controversial truth campaign.

truth.

The truth is essentially the public arm of Legacy, and is responsible for television advertisements depicting what might be called "creative non-violence," in the sense that extreme measures are taken to capture the viewers' attention, but nothing approaching violence or lawlessness. The commercials usually have a distinctive subversive flavor to them, in that the video is poor-quality and the "actors" -- the people creating the "creative non-violence" -- seem themselves rebellious and young. While anti-tobacco campaigns lacking this flavor -- such as the smaller-scale, Iowa-based campaign, Just Eliminate Lies -- come across as preachy, truth's implied subversion gives the ads an odd veracity; or, to put it in terms my generation might actually use: coolness.

Which is precisely what they're supposed to be. The truth is trying to make not smoking cool. Which is fine and good, I guess, if the message was being sent by a forthright and legitimately cool voice.

While one would be frustrated by trying to pin down JEL's funding -- I could find nothing on their Web site save "sound bites" lifted from www.thetruth.com -- the truth's funding by a national foundation headed by elected officials (aka, The Establishment) can be found on its Web site, in a less-travelled corner. The truth admits it gets all its funding from Legacy, which seems to be meant to imply it is separate from the Foundation, although Legacy's own description of truth defines it as its own educational and advertising effort. Semantics?

Perhaps. But it's only the beginning of evasive word-play for an organization preposterous enough to call itself the "truth."

The literature on truth's Web site is worlds away from its parent organization's. Everywhere there is a statistic, there is an accompanying analysis invariably castigating the rich, lying tobacco executives. These castigations might have a basis, but somehow I suspect the motivation behind bromides when they're handed to me by an actor voicing a script written by a child psychologist working for the Attorney-General of Washington. It just smacks too much of Big Brother.

The tobacco industry may be guilty of hiding what it knew about links between cancer and other health ailments and cigarette-smoking in the fifties; on the other hand, print advertising in The Rolling Stone does not constitute advertising to youth, no matter what band you might have on its cover. The tobacco industry is not necessarily rotten to the core -- in other words, evidence to that end is lacking.

The truth vilifies an industry without having to subject itself to the same scrutiny it showers upon its victim. The result is a massive smear campaign, polluting not only American thought on tobacco, but on other public health issues, as well.

A decade ago, would it have even been conceivable that fast food and junk food could somehow be held responsible for obesity of "epidemic" proportions? Yet even now state legislatures are tossing around the feasibility of a tax on junk food. Americans are abdicating personal responsibility and seeking federal assistance in bleeding those corporations insidious enough to give us exactly what we wanted.

/me is looking forward to the day when we'll sue media conglomerates for purposely exposing children to images of gratuitous sex and violence, despite evidence that such exposure leads to real, violent acts.

The moral of the story: Sapere Aude

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