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The Southern Nevada Health District is ramping up its very Las Vegas approach aimed at reducing smoking among teens and young adults.
District officials say the best way to get young people to stop — or not start — smoking is to use the bar and nightclub scene and ads that feature scantily clad men and women in sexually suggestive poses. The district plans to spend millions of dollars over the next couple of years on a campaign that uses that plan of attack.
Local health officials determined several years ago that to counter the methods that tobacco companies have used for decades to lure young people into thinking it is cool to smoke, the most effective option was fighting fire with fire.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention apparently doesn’t mind. In March it awarded $14.6 million economic stimulus money to the Health District to spend over the next two years on its smoking prevention programs — the third largest anti-tobacco grant in the nation.
That has drawn attention to the district’s plans to greatly expand its “counter-advertising” campaign, much to the dismay of an anti-smoking advocate from Colorado who has railed in the past against Nevada’s historically permissive attitude toward smoking.
Smoke-Free Gaming Chairwoman Stephanie Steinberg, who advocates smoke-free casinos nationwide, said last week she thinks the district’s anti-smoking message to teens and young adults is diluted by ads whose images promote boozing and sex.
“They are basically promoting a party scene in Vegas,” Steinberg complains. “Are they promoting a healthy lifestyle? No they are not. They’re promoting drinking and promiscuity.”
Part of her anger is directed toward three websites that the district uses to reach young people: xpozlv.com, which targets youths aged 13 to 17 attracted to the hard-core rock scene; urbanfuel.org, for adults 18 to 24, particularly those attracted to the nightclub scene; and socrush.com for young gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. The latter two websites contain photos of people in bikinis, underwear or otherwise barely dressed. Urbanfuel has shown photos of people drinking in nightclubs. And xpozlv promotes some bands that have penned pro-drinking songs, such as “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong” by Against Me! and “Whiskey Scotch Whiskey” by the Real McKenzies.
The Health District’s Tobacco Control Program manager, Maria Azzarelli, counters that young people would be turned off by any attempt from her agency to combine an anti-drinking message with one that opposes smoking.
“You can’t go into this looking like a health Nazi,” Azzarelli says. “You can’t address things like drinking and driving and HIV all at once because you won’t be successful.”
To drive its counter-advertising strategy, the district in 2001 began employing Rescue Social Change Group, a privately held company based in San Diego and founded by former Las Vegas resident Jeff Jordan. The company, which has an office in Las Vegas, also operates anti-smoking campaigns in California and seven other states.
Jordan said the reason the social networking strategy leans so heavily on punk rock concerts, nightclubs and scantily clad models to push its message is because young smokers are drawn to those lifestyles. While conceding that Steinberg has “a valid concern” about the drinking that goes on at no-smoking events his company has held at nightclubs on and off the Strip, he said the highest percentage of young adults who smoke are also the same individuals who participate in the club scene.
“We have to identify who is smoking so we can cause change over time,” Jordan says. “All we’re doing is going to where they are to deliver a message.”
The use of models who show you can look attractive without smoking is another example of how his company seeks to deliver that message. Some of those models are employed to distribute literature or take surveys on tobacco-related issues.
As for the pro-drinking message often heard at punk rock concerts, he says, “It’s hard to find music that promotes something that we don’t disagree with. You still have to go into the culture, whether it’s a concert or bar, and respect that culture if you want to change it.”
This philosophy, he says, is the opposite of many government-funded health programs that tend to preach to young people rather than attempt to fit into their culture.
Before this year, the Health District paid Rescue $60,000 annually to spread the anti-smoking message in Southern Nevada, roughly one-tenth of the district’s smoking prevention budget. That contract and other anti-smoking initiatives were jeopardized this year, though, when state lawmakers forced with addressing Nevada’s widening budget deficit took money away from smoking prevention programs.
The federal grant not only was a savior, it was a windfall that will enable the Health District to substantially increase Rescue’s annual budget to $1.2 million a year over the next two years, all with the blessing of the CDC. The money will enable Rescue to host many more anti-smoking events and reach a higher percentage of its target audience. Rescue also plans for the first time to air television ads in Las Vegas aimed at teens and young adults.
Although Azzarelli said smoking rates dropped in Nevada for several years — a trend reflected nationally from the 1960s through 2007 — she and Jordan conceded it is not yet possible to quantify the effect their counter-advertising program is having on teens and young adults.
The CDC this year reported mixed results for Nevada — while the smoking rate among high school students in 2009 was 17 percent, below the national average of 18.2 percent, only seven states in 2008 had a higher smoking rate among adults than Nevada’s 22.2 percent.
It’s all the more reason why the Health District plans to press ahead with its quest to get young Nevadans to stop smoking. After all, as Azzarelli said, “tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.”