The Magazine

THE CHILDREN'S CRUSADE

Apr 20, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 31 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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Jeff Koltys is 13 years old and in the seventh grade at the Mary E. Volz Middle School in Runnemede, N.J., a blue-collar suburb outside Philadelphia. On a recent Wednesday morning he describes as typical, Jeff arrives at his 9: 30 class, a "gifted and talented" program reserved for the school's brightest students, and sits down at a computer. He will spend the rest of the period in front of the screen, working with a desktop-publishing program to superimpose a photograph of a cigarette over a photograph of a tank. When Jeff is done with the project, which he says will likely take several class periods to complete, there will be a Winston filter tip where the tank's gun barrel once was. As Jeff explains, the image he is creating has a simple message: "Smoking kills."


Across the room, Jeff's classmates are working on similar projects. One student has used his computer to create a sinister-looking picture of Darth Vader smoking. Another has designed a grim wedding portrait of a bride and groom standing eye to eye in a graveyard, smoldering cigarettes in their teeth. Still another child is using photo-altering software to modify a Philip Morris ad; by the time she is finished, the Marlboro Man's horse will be on its back, feet in the air -- dead from lethal smoke-borne carcinogens.


Jeff and his classmates work on their tobacco pictures with purpose and intensity. They have created their own anti-smoking organization -- Children Opposed to Smoking Tobacco -- and plan to post these images on C.O.S.T.'s Web site. When the project is completed, the students will move on to another tobacco-related effort. They may start a letter-writing campaign to state legislators in support of anti-smoking legislation. Or they may once again show up at a nearby intersection with picket signs to protest cigarette billboards. Not long ago, Jeff says, "some of us took part in a strike force," during which the children went undercover at local convenience stores and tried to convince clerks to break the law by selling them cigarettes. (Six stores are being taken to court as a result.)


There are a lot of ways kids in Jeff's class can fight Big Tobacco, but no matter what they decide to do next, their teacher, Linda Hurd, is certain to be proud of them. "My students and I have been working for two years against the tobacco companies," explains Hurd, who spends nearly all of her time in the classroom promoting anti-smoking activism. "The kids are really adamant about making a change." It's a big job. Tobacco, Hurd points out, "is intertwined throughout our whole society, the stock market, the economy." So far, her students have been willing to take on corporate nicotine peddlers in all their manifestations. The kids have investigated mutual funds to see which ones contain tobacco stocks. They've pushed local politicians to ban cigarette vending machines. At one point, students in Hurd's class sent outraged letters to a confectionary company for daring to produce candy cigarettes. "The whole project," Hurd explains, "has empowered the children," allowing them "to see through the tactics and make them become upset with the tobacco companies and take a stand." Ultimately, she says, "what we're hoping to do is to make children aware and to make children angry."


Thanks to adults like Linda Hurd, children all over America are angry about cigarette smoking, and becoming angrier. In early April, schools in all 50 states observed Kick Butts Day, an annual celebration of "tobacco control youth activism" that was started several years ago by New York City public advocate Mark Green. The Clinton administration has enthusiastically endorsed Kick Butts Day, and it's easy to see why. The debate over tobacco may continue in Congress for years, but with the help of enraged schoolchildren, the administration's public-relations battle has already been won. Consider some of this year's Kick Butts Day activities, detailed in press releases sent out by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington, D.C., anti- smoking group that helped organize them.