Anti-smoking slogan’s edgy — that’s the point

The News Tribune The News Tribune The News TribuneSeptember 6, 2013 

A T-shirt from Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s anti-tobacco campaign appears on the campaign’s Facebook page.

“Suck on this.”

– Slogan in Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department anti-tobacco campaign

It’s rude, crude and all but guaranteed to get many parents and sticklers for good manners up in arms.

In other words, it’s designed to appeal to average teenagers. Or at least get their attention.

That’s the goal, anyway, of the new anti-tobacco campaign by the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. The messages are particularly targeted at young people, because research has shown that those who start smoking before age 18 are extremely likely to become addicted. If health advocates can deter teens from taking up the habit, they probably won’t become part of the approximately 18 percent of American adults who smoke — and contribute greatly to the high cost of health care.

Some critics, including health board member and Pierce County Councilman Jim McCune, have objected to the slogan as being “sexual in nature.” But among the target audience, “That sucks” isn’t sexual; it’s universally used to describe something negative and disliked — exactly what adults should hope teens’ reaction to smoking would be.

Smoking rates among teens have been dropping for years — reflecting similar declines among adults. In 2012, only 5 percent of high school sophomores said they smoked cigarettes daily in the previous month, compared to 18 percent at one point in the 1990s. But progress has been slowing in recent years and fell only slightly between 2011 and 2012. That means anti-smoking advocates have to keep fine-tuning their message to reach those youngsters who aren’t getting it yet.

The “Suck on this” slogan — which is just part of the overall campaign — is accompanied by information that teens might otherwise ignore, such as: “One hour of hookah = 150 cigarettes.” There’s also “Chew on this: Snuff can make you lose your tongue” and “Suck on this: 1 out of 3 smokers will die young.” Those are important messages, and if an in-your-face strategy can get kids to notice, great.

With all the competing messages out there, it can be hard to get through to kids. Knowing that they will live forever, they may ignore the stern warnings on cigarette packages or pleadings from loved ones — but they might pay attention to something that sounds like the way they talk.

And if they know adults disapprove for some reason, so much the better.

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