Teens Take On Big Tobacco

Their enemy is Big Tobacco. And for this group of Florida teens, there is no middle ground. They call their army Students Working Against Tobacco or SWAT.

CBS News Correspondent Randall Pinkston caught up with SWAT members while they prepared for one of their most important board meetings: a first-time showdown with a representative from Big Tobacco.

Laura Deeb, a 16-year-old sophomore from Tallahassee, Fla., is one of SWAT's field marshals.

"ItÂ's a movement thatÂ's going around, and itÂ's caught fire across the state. There are about 10,000 of us statewide in SWAT," she says. "SWAT is the messenger, and truth is the message that we send out."

That message "is that Big Tobacco is lying and manipulating our decisions," Laura says. "And we need to fix that."

SWAT's young activists are commanding attention by taking a page from tobacco companiesÂ's playbook: slick advertising.

The campaign began with a truth train that delivered an anti-smoking message all over Florida. The latest volley is a drive aimed at tobacco ads, which students say target teens.

Not only hard-hitting ads are attracting Florida teens to the anti-smoking movement; there are also big events featuring rides, food, giveaway prizes and music.

And all of it paid for by Big Tobacco.

You heard right: Big Tobacco is picking up the entire tab for the campaign that targets Big Tobacco. The money is part of a landmark 1997 settlement by tobacco companies with the state of Florida.

It was late Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles who insisted that a portion of the money be dedicated to a student-run anti-smoking campaign.

"WeÂ're going to educate our children about the damages of tobacco," Chiles said. "WeÂ'll use hundreds of millions of dollars of tobacco dollars to give our kids the facts."

And less than two years later, the teensÂ' efforts are producing results.

Nationwide, federal studies show teen smoking is on the rise, but here in Florida teen smoking has dropped significantly in the past year. ItÂ's down 21 percent among middle-school students and 8 percent among high school students.

SWAT has been relentless in pursuit of its perceived enemy, spouting slogans like a mantra.

"Everyone knows that tobacco is bad for them," says Tim Guiliani from St. Augustine. "But not everybody knows the way they target us. And thatÂ's what our campaign really says. It says the tobacco industry is manipulating and lying to us."

Jennifer Jackson has been part of SWAT from the beginning.

"We canÂ't just stand by passively as our friends and schoolmates are being targeted and dying," she says. "We canÂ't just stand by and let this happen."

But some teen smokers in Florida, who risk fines if theyÂ're caught, are not buying SWATÂ's message.

"I mean, I just feel like, you know, the cigarette companies like Philip Morris never came up to me and said, 'Smoke this cigarette,'" says one teen smoker.

"It mainly started in the household," says a teen-age girl. "And friends. But I donÂ't think cigarette ads had anything to do with it."

Yet SWAT members like 15-year-old Rachel Claire Mitchell maintain movies and TV share some of the blame.

"I mean, when we go to movies, we see the lead characters smoke. We see them looking cool," she says. "Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo and Juliet, a PG-13 movie, was smoking. And we all know how much of a teen idol he is."

The tobacco companies are "out to kill me for my money," Rachel says. "And I really want to hurt them. And IÂ'll do it any way that I can."

That's the reason for a weekend showdown in Jacksonville. Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company agreed to meet with SWAT to discuss its marketing tactics and how to change them. Youth from every county came to confront Brown and Williamson's Corky Newton.

It may be a sign of the times for Big Tobacco that Newton heads an entire office devoted to corporate and youth responsibility programs.

"It's fair to say that we would like our image to be different among the public," Newton says. "We would rather not be perceived in the negative way that weÂ're perceived today. We donÂ't want people to think that we lie, cheat or steal. We donÂ't do those things. We donÂ't target our products to teen-agers."

Newton denies that tobacco companies like his have marketed their products to kids.

"IÂ've been with Brown and Williamson for 30 years," he says. "During the entire course of my career, there have always controls in place to be sure that we donÂ't market to kids."

But the face-off with Big Tobacco turns out to be less a confrontation than a dialogue.

"To say that weÂ're just going to banish this product from the line of sight from teen-agers is practically impossible," Newton says. "And I just really donÂ't think that, that imposing these sorts of rules is the right balance."

One teen asks: "Would you be willing to listen to a teen advisory board of some sort to review advertisements and marketing practices to tell you whether they target teens?"

"ThatÂ's a problem weÂ've wrestled with before," says Newton. "IÂ'd love to talk to you about what you think might be appropriate guidelines or restrictions. Â… But I really donÂ't think itÂ's appropriate to have teen-agers looking at cigarette advertising and making judgments about it."

When it was over, SWAT members thought they had scored a victory.

"We did something historic today," says Tim Giuliani. "We sat down with the tobacco industry. We really think weÂ're going to make progress."

Newton calls it "a terrific thing that the money from the tobacco settlement is being directed toward preventing youth smoking. Â… If that has a negative financial impact on our company, so be it."

"ItÂ's vital to our business that kids donÂ't moke," he says. "And if weÂ're perceived as marketing to kids, then itÂ's likely that people will not want to allow cigarettes to continue as a legal business in this country."