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The determination of the German government to ignore growing anger about its close proximity to the tobacco industry, and appeals for it to end the deal whereby the industry funds a youth education programme, reached new heights in August. As more than two thousand tobacco control advocates from all over the world convened in Helsinki for the World Conference on Tobacco or Health, a new advertising campaign was launched in Germany, consisting of a series of advertisements in youth publications. Each ad showed teenagers in some very modern, life-like teen situations, under what appeared to be an aggressively pro-tobacco message. Underneath the main message, in much smaller type, was another item of copy refuting the apparent message of the first one.
For example, one showing a young girl, cigarette in hand, mid-kiss with her boyfriend, was entitled, “Raucher haben kontakt” (“Smokers have contact”); and below that, in the smaller type, some more copy that translates as, “Correct: with carcinogens such as arsenic, benzene, radon or tar”. The ads are part of a contract valued at €11.8 million (US$13.5 million) over five years between the German Ministry of Health and the tobacco industry. Significantly, the contract specifies that the money can only be spent on youth prevention campaigns, and that “the measures taken must not discriminate against the tobacco industry, their products, the cigarette business or the adult smoker”.
The Federal Centre for Health Education, which developed the campaign, pleaded that the new ads had pre-tested well with a representative sample of the target audience, and had not been influenced in any way by the tobacco industry, just funded by it. However, some of the world’s most experienced health educationalists, who saw the ads in Helsinki, added their derision to the gathering storm of protest from an increasingly cohesive coalition of German health groups. They saw the ads as crass beyond belief, refusing to believe that even if teenagers read the smaller copy, it would actually have any effect on their attitudes to smoking. Many groups feared it would confuse teenagers and even encourage them to smoke, as the prevailing messages were all in the images—of young people doing things they like to do, accompanied by cigarettes. The overall impact of the ads was to glamorise smoking, they claimed, and it was shameful for the German government to be taken in by the tobacco industry’s pretence that it does not want young people to start smoking.
Professor Dr Friedrich Wiebel, chairman of the German medical action group on smoking and health, went further: “The seduction is perfect. The minor shot of health warnings makes smoking even more attractive.” Groups such as the cancer charity German Cancer Aid demanded that the health ministry should immediately end the campaign, while the world conference delegates unanimously voted for a resolution urging civil society, academia, and governments not to accept funding or participate in the tobacco industry’s youth, social responsibility, voluntary marketing, or other programmes.
At the end of the conference, one apologist for the advertisements was heard to plead that at least the health education centre was in dialogue with the government about tobacco, whereas other health groups had abandoned their attempts to persuade it to change its policy. This left the tobacco industry as the only other body willing to talk to it, and thus able to influence government policy. The logic of what sounded like a policy of appeasement was not well received by those who heard it.
Apart from its tobacco control policy, or lack of it, Germany is in many ways a model European country that deserves to be celebrated for its contribution to the present, not the past. If only the government could break its disastrous addiction to Big Tobacco (see also Tobacco Control 2002;11:291–3).