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.
In Virginia, students in suburban Falls Church held a funeral for the cartoon character Mr. Butts, who died, it was reported in the school newspaper, of "exposure to a lethal dose of truth during congressional hearings and court cases." In Cape Coral, Fla., youth activists at Gulf Middle School gave an anti-smoking presentation to local elementary-school students that included "a puppet show, a funeral, the skit Nightmare on Emphysema Street, and stand-up comedy from Mr. Black Lung." In Middletown, Ohio, officials at the local health department conducted a "tobacco ghost activity" with students at two area high schools, during which certain kids were "marked" as smokers in the morning, then marked "as ghosts as they die from the harmful effects of tobacco throughout the day." Fifth-graders in Swarthmore, Penn., put on a rally and a play to dramatize the dangers of tobacco, while their counterparts in Erie held a press conference. Students in San Bernardino, Calif., led anti-tobacco chants. Children from 87 counties in Minnesota produced anti-smoking public-service announcements. Kids in Mesa, Ariz., plastered magazine covers with stickers that warned of the tobacco advertising inside. In Georgia, middle-school students composed anti-smoking poems and short stories. Ten-year-olds in Pittsburgh wrote and directed anti- smoking videos. In Bridgeton, N.J., a group of 100 seventh-graders demanded that smoking be prohibited at bingo games in the area. A class of second- graders in Mattapan, Mass., expressed their support for a smoking ban in restaurants.
In Alabama, students at the Buhl Elementary School were so taken with the celebration that they extended it into a Kick Butts Week. Members of the Buhl student council roamed the halls wearing "armbands that have sobering tobacco statistics printed on them." At one event, Buhl students chanted slogans while tossing "merchandise with tobacco logos (e.g. lighters, ashtrays, T-shirts, caps, jackets, backpacks, etc.) into a huge dumpster behind the school." Later in the week, a student dressed as the Grim Reaper visited each classroom at the school to "identify potential tobacco users and make them wear a skull and crossbones." At the end of the day, students gathered for an assembly to learn about "the deadly recipe the tobacco industry concocts that kills millions of people."
With their hair-trigger instinct for moral outrage, children make particularly fervid political recruits, so it's not surprising that there was a pronounced authoritarian quality to many of the Kick Butts Day festivities. Dozens of schools conducted "undercover buying operations" at convenience stores, designed to help local law enforcement catch clerks selling cigarettes to kids. In Woodland Hills, Calif., vigilant children at the Castlemont School conducted "a hunt for smoking messages in their community." Students at Charlottesville High School in Virginia circulated a petition demanding "a stronger enforcement and disciplinary policy for teens caught smoking on school grounds." In Crookston, Minn., meanwhile, students met " their principal for dinner at a local restaurant that has banned smoking to discuss what can be done about kids who smoke on school grounds." At Valley Forge Senior High in Parma Heights, Ohio, administrators conducted "extra surveillance sweeps in school restrooms to catch student smokers." For their part, kids at Valley Forge gathered in the school cafeteria to physically assault a mannequin dressed as a cigarette.
Such an atmosphere is naturally conducive to show trials, and there were a number of them on Kick Butts Day. In Phoenix, students from Palo Verde Elementary School hauled Mr. Butts before a jury of gradeschoolers on charges of "poisoning people's lungs and causing nicotine addiction and lung cancer." In Grant Park, Ill., students at Grant Park Middle School indicted the entire tobacco industry on no fewer than seven counts, including "polluting the environment, . . . . indecent exposure in a public restaurant, . . . . pyromania," assault and battery, child abuse, and attempted murder.
And it wasn't just the tobacco companies who played the villain on Kick Butts Day. Individual smokers also got reeducated. Elementary-school kids in River Rouge, Mich., for instance, invited a "guest who smokes" to their class and then proceeded to surprise him with "anti-tobacco slogans and posters." Fifth-graders in Chelsea, Mass., fanned out on foot through their neighborhoods to "knock on the doors of friends and parents who smoke to educate them about the dangers of smoking." At Tipton Middle School in Iowa, " 300 students conducted a parent survey and discovered that 50 percent of their parents smoke." Armed with the survey results, the student council promptly held "a school-wide assembly on the dangers of smoking." And just in case the kids missed the point -- that many of them will soon be tobacco orphans -- the school invited "doctors from Mercy Hospital Clinic and a cancer patient who had his larynx removed due to years of cigarette use."
Telling young children that their parents will soon die horrible deaths from smoking has, of course, long been a favored approach of school nurses and anti-tobacco organizations. Spread across a table in Linda Hurd's classroom at Volz Middle School is a large white banner that is covered with messages that Hurd's students have written to their relatives who smoke. The childish inscriptions are peppered with exclamation points; many of them seem both angry and desperate: "Dear Mom and Dad, Please stop smoking before you die! . . . . Dear Mommy, Please stop smoking. I don't want you to get cancer like Pop-Pop. I'll miss you if you do. Love, Nichole." "Dear Grandmom, I wish you could go for walks in the park with me and go to church. But you can't. You have emphysema." Hurd reads the last message out loud. "The little boy who wrote that, last month he walked in and said, 'My grandmom died on Friday, '" she explains, sounding vindicated.
It can be tough growing up as the child of a tobacco user, and the discovery of secondhand smoke has recently made it a lot tougher. Parents who smoke, it is now explained to children, are not only poisoning themselves, they are also poisoning their kids. A public-service announcement released by the California Department of Health Services makes the point explicitly. Entitled "Daddy's Girl," the radio spot opens with a daughter's voice addressing her father: "Daddy, this is your little girl. That's right, the same little girl you used to bounce on your knee while you watched football. Well, I've been meaning to ask you something all of these years: Why are you trying to kill me? That's what you're doing, you know, when you smoke those dumb cigarettes."
Heavy-handed? Maybe, but not unusual. This spring, Sue Babicz, a 31-year- old "health educator" with Blue Cross of Pennsylvania, helped organize a " peer awareness program" for 450 fourth-graders at the Wyoming Valley West School in Wilkes-Barre. At the event, an informal poll was taken to determine how many students present had parents who smoke. When more than 30 percent of the children raised their hands, the speaker decided to get tough. "He told them to go home and tell their parents not to smoke because it hurts them," Babicz remembers. While she approves of the message, Babicz admits that hearing an authority figure accuse their parents of child abuse can be difficult for children. "They know that their parents love them," Babicz says.
On the other hand, "Why are they exposing them to smoke? It must really be a conflict. I think it's a hard thing for kids to deal with."
No doubt it is, and not simply because propaganda like this is likely to give children nightmares. When teachers criticize parents for cigarette smoking, says Kay Hymowitz, a contributing editor at the City Journal who is writing a book about the effect of politics on children, "what they're saying is, 'We are the more moral force in your lives, and your parents don't even know how to keep you alive.' It's very, very intrusive into the parent- child relationship." Schools are allowed to get away with this, Hymowitz points out, because somewhere along the way, "smoking has been turned from a commonsense health issue into a question of moral superiority." As a television commercial created for the state of California's anti-tobacco program puts it, smoking harms a person's lungs, "but where it hurts most is in the soul." Smoking is now considered so sinful that even dying from it doesn't erase the shame. In a 1994 paid obituary from the Arkansas Democrat- Gazette, for instance, the grieving relatives of a 46-year-old man made certain to explain that he had died after "a long heroic non-smoker's battle with lung cancer."
If smoking is a soul-emperiling moral flaw, then it makes sense that many of those who oppose it sound like rural preachers on the last night of revival week. Asked why smoking should be outlawed in public places, Elva Yanez, associate director of the Berkeley-based Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, responds by comparing cigarette smoking to mass murder. "I shouldn't be allowed to take a loaded gun into a restaurant and shoot it," she says heatedly. "It's the same type of issue. It's just like people aren't allowed to drive their cars through school playgrounds. It's that simple."
It's almost as simple for Bill Novelli, who two and a half years ago left his job at CARE to found the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. Novelli, who once ran the public-relations firm Porter Novelli, makes no apologies for using children as weapons in what he calls the Tobacco Wars. "These kids are advocates," he says, explaining why so many second-graders have become energetic lobbyists for tougher tobacco legislation. "I don't think it's a question of manipulating children or using children at all. I think it's a question of children taking their natural bent. Many of these children want to do that."
An eight-year-old's "natural bent" is political activism? Novelli sounds frustrated. Look, he says, "let's say for the sake of the conversation that we ourselves are suggesting advocacy activities for kids. I don't see that as bad. Tobacco addicts kids. Tobacco kills people. Standing up against tobacco is terribly important." Indeed, Novelli says, it may literally be the most important thing in the world. "If you want to draw a hierarchy of harms or social problems, you'd probably end up putting tobacco on top," he explains. " If you look at the thing worldwide, tobacco is like an atomic bomb on the horizon. The World Health Organization has estimated that millions and millions of people who are alive today are going to die from tobacco. It is going to be bigger than virtually anything else in terms of world crises."
Anti-tobacco activism has obviously filled a need for Bill Novelli, as it has for others in search of more meaningful midlife careers. But it has also helped spawn an entire industry of consultants, educators, and freelance activists-for-hire. Fears about teen smoking have even created a market for Sterlen Barr, perhaps the nation's preeminent anti-tobacco rap artist. (A selection from Barr's standard work: "The tobacco industry, they're not people who care. / They get about one million teens to start smoking every year. / Only thing they care about is how to make some more cash. / Once you get addicted to the drug they all get a laugh.")
Barr, who is 30 and lives in Philadelphia, says the student audiences he speaks to up to three times a week almost always appreciate his anti-tobacco rap. "They're outraged when they hear all the information I give them because they didn't know how they were being manipulated by the tobacco industry," he says. "A lot of them think they smoke Newport, Marlboro, and Camels because they decided that. They didn't know they were being targeted. It wasn't even their choice. They're very ignorant to a lot of information they don't know." Barr himself is grateful to have found his niche in the growing anti-tobacco rap industry. Top performers, he says, "can get anywhere from $ 1,500 to $ 2, 000 a day, on up" working the anti-smoking circuit. "If you get in the right situation, you can do very, very well with it." In college, Barr says he studied chemistry with plans of going to pharmacy school. Not anymore. "I've created something where I can make a lot more than a pharmacist. Isn't that awesome?"
A lot of awesome things have been happening to the tobacco-control movement lately. As one example, Linda Hurd points to the fact that both President Clinton and Vice President Gore have acknowledged the good work her students at Volz Middle School have done. "President Clinton met six of my kids at the airport last year," she says proudly. "See, he signed our banner." As she points to the presidential signature, Hurd begins to look sad. She is thinking, she says, of her own relatives who have been affected by smoking -- Uncle Al, for example, a man who never smoked, and yet who died of cancer, probably because he lived with a woman who smoked. "We didn't know about secondhand smoke back then," Hurd says. Suddenly she bursts into tears. Two of her students look on uncomfortably as Hurd stifles sobs and remembers Uncle Al. "He had a 25-pound tumor," she says.
Their anti-smoking work for the day completed, Hurd's students begin to file out. The next group of children arrives, but Hurd, eager to reminisce at greater length about her family's tragic medical history, cancels the class. She spends the next 20 minutes explaining how smoking has affected her loved ones. And then the shocking news emerges: Her own son is a cigarette smoker, an "addict" who started at 13 and, despite his mother's best efforts, continues to puff two years later.
Wow, talk about irony. How'd that happen? Hurd ignores the dig, or else doesn't even notice it. Her reply comes in a bewildered monotone. It was the tobacco companies that did it, she says, and those ubiquitous cigarette ads. " He just got roped in like everyone else."
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.