Put It Out:
Queens Kids Lead
The Fight Against Tobacco Advertising
By Angela Montefinise
Woodside resident Nacima Aissaoui has always been interested in smoking.
The 17-year-old Bryant High School student remembers when she was a “kid” and used to walk around with rolled up pieces of paper in her mouth to make her feel like she was smoking a cigarette.
The soon-to-be high school senior said, “I don’t know if I felt grown up or what but I still ran around with the rolled up looseleaf strip sticking out of my little mouth.”
Over the years, her curiosity about smoking grew and grew because of the barrage of tobacco ads covering the walls and storefronts across her area. She said, “Smoking was always right there in my view. If I went to get gum from the grocery store, the cigarette ads were always in my direct vision.”
Last summer, when Aissaoui went through a “depressing” time in her life, she decided to give in to the ads and take up smoking. She regrets it, and said, “Smoking the few times I did still left its mark with me and reveals itself each day I try to keep up with the rest of my class in gym . . . I still fail to see the ‘pleasure’ that Newport pleasure cigarettes have brought to me.”
Aissaoui quit smoking two months ago, and decided to share her experiences with the Asian American Network for Cancer Awareness, Research and Training (AANCART), a non-profit group from Columbia University in Manhattan.
The group, which is dedicated to broadening and expanding community-based cancer control and prevention activities, held an essay contest for Queens high school and middle school students on the effects of tobacco advertising on teens as part of a three-pronged attack on Queens tobacco advertising, and Aissaoui was the first place high school winner.
Aissaoui and the other winners in both the high school and middle school categories accepted their prizes at the Sheraton Hotel in Flushing on Aug. 21, and a proud Aissaoui said, “Quitting smoking was the best thing I could do, and I hope others follow that example.”
The essay contest – which was announced at the beginning of the summer and attracted more than 40 responses across Queens – is part of a larger attack against tobacco ads in the borough by AANCART.
The group set its sights on the borough this year after conducting a study of between eight and 10 Queens neighborhoods last year, and finding that they had a higher concentration of storefront tobacco advertising than areas surveyed as part of a national study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 1999.
Nationally, about 58 percent of stores surveyed had tobacco ads. In Queens, 72 percent of stores surveyed had tobacco ads, AANCART said.
While the organization focused on neighborhoods with high Asian and South Asian populations, AANCART Outreach Coordinator Nadia Islam explained that their results can be applied anywhere. She said, “We looked into many different areas and feel we gained a complete picture of the Queens situation.”
As a result of that research, AANCART came up with a three-part plan called the Community Tobacco Project to fight tobacco advertising in Queens, including the essay contest, the creation of “rules” that businesses would follow in regards to tobacco ads, and the launching of a campaign with business leaders promoting the rules.
Island explained, “Advertising works. That’s the truth, or else no one would do it. So the fewer ads kids see, the less susceptible they are to smoking. At least, that’s what we believe.”
AANCART has created a draft of the “rules” that it would like businesses to abide by to help deter tobacco advertising.
They include limiting the amount of exterior space that could hold tobacco ads to 30 percent, limiting the number of ads per tobacco brand to four, removing tobacco ads on or near child-oriented products, removing ads that are located three feet off the ground or lower, and requiring that for every two tobacco ads, there needs to be at least one sign/promotional item indicating that the store does not sell tobacco to minors.
Islam said, “By law, we can’t stop tobacco advertising. We can’t force people to take it down. But we can come up with reasonable rules that businesses can follow voluntarily that would lessen the impact of tobacco advertising on teens and kids.”
Currently, AANCART is sending response forms to business leaders asking them for their support and any suggestions they may have. The group is also asking for their support in the third part of the project, the campaign to support the community-based rules.
Islam said, “So far, it’s going well. But we are still looking for plenty of support.”
AANCART got plenty of support from middle school and high school students through its essay contest, which concluded this week with the rewarding of a $100 cash prize to high school first place winner Aissaoui, and a $75 cash prize to middle school first place winner Janet Kim of Woodside.
High school second place winner John Kim of Flushing and third place high school winner Daniel Hong of Fresh Meadows received non-cash prizes, as did middle school second place winner Stella Chung of Bayside and middle school third place winner Sara Choi of Bayside.
City Councilman John Liu, one of the essay contest’s judges, attended the awards ceremony at the Sheraton, and said, “The youth who are here today showed keen insight on issues affecting their communities – in fact, I learned a lot from reading the essays.”
Students were told about the essay contest through their schools, and from various Asian organizations, including the South Asian Youth Association (SAYA).
Islam added, “We are very pleased with how this worked out. These kids showed that there is a drive amongst teens to stop this. That’s the first step.”
The following are excerpts from Aissaoui’s first place essay in the high school category, “Tobacco Advertisement”:
“Within a block of every school exist the local “candy store.” It becomes a teenager’s best friend especially over the course of the school year as it is often visited at least twice a day to stock up on snacks and drinks. However, instead of the typical teenager exiting with a bag of Fritos and a can of Coke one notices a cigarette pack in his/her possession. The reason for this scene isn’t exactly impossible to understand.
“Before I enter the grocery store on the corner of my high school I see many posters; however, the ones that catch my eye are often the cigarette ads with delightful exotic scenes and serene greens . . .
“I was very depressed [last summer] and figured I needed the aid of cigarettes to relieve my stress and calm my nerves. I always heard that people smoked to sooth themselves and I decided that is what I needed. Ultimately, cigarette ads did, in fact, lead me to believe that the smoothe scenarios in their ads were real. This idea was embedded in my mind when I was young; however, it stayed with me until I was old enough to obtain them and see for myself what they did...
“Tobacco companies like to claim that teen smoking is the direct result of peer pressure; however, the reason isn’t that easy...
“It isn’t coincidental that tobacco companies use words like “pleasure” in the names of the cigarette brands. The executives use certain names that will appeal to the youth market . . . The tobacco industry is dominated by the companies who respond most to the needs of younger smokers . . .
“Tobacco is a huge money-making production and it doesn’t even need to use trickery and perception in order to capture the youth market. They continue to use insidious ways to gather “loyal buyers” at a young age in which they are much more susceptible to fall prey to their deceitful marketing schemes . . .
“From train stations to candy stores, tobacco advertisement rules the land with its appealing, yet destructive popularity toll. Whether or not tobacco advertisement is the sole reason teens smoke is debatable. However, it certainly holds a top spot as one of the reasons . . .”
The following are excerpts from Janet Kim’s untitled first place essay in the middle school category:
“In my neighborhood, Woodside, you can see tobacco ads in a lot of places. I feel that tobacco industries are focusing on teens to marker their business. I know this because it is the only way the tobacco industry can survive. The majority of smokers admit that they started smoking in their teen years.
“Tobacco ads appear on billboards, television, and even in teen magazines. They might show a model or celebrity smoking, having a good time, and/or socializing with other people. Teenagers look up to celebrities and might start smoking just to look “cool” like celebrities. The ads might make teens feel insecure and start smoking to get friends, etc . . .
“Cigarette companies also use animated characters for their advertising. For an example Marlboro uses a character named “The Marlboro Man.” That might not only appeal to teens but can also appeal to young children. That will probably cause them to smoke at an even earlier age.
In conclusion, tobacco companies encourage teens to smoke through advertisements . . .They need young people to smoke so that the smoking industry can survive and continue.”
Businesses or groups interested in participating in the initiative should call Islam or Project Director Simona Kwon at (212) 305-9079.