Anti-smoking billboards update
Anti-smoking billboards draw fire
By JARED MILLER, Casper Star-Tribune
February 7, 2009?
CHEYENNE — Traveling to the state capitol last month to testify against a proposed public indoor smoking ban, Casper businessman Pat Sweeney couldn’t help but notice the bright green billboards along Interstate 25.
Sweeney did a double take when he noticed tags identifying the Wyoming Department of Health as the sponsor of the billboards, which highlight the dangers of second-hand smoke.
“I’m on my way to Cheyenne and I’m like what the heck is that about?” said Sweeney, owner of Poor Boy’s Steak House and the Wonder Bar. “I just found the whole thing suspect.”
As a debate rages in Cheyenne over statewide smoke-free legislation, opponents are questioning the timing of a state-sponsored billboard campaign targeting second-hand smoke.
Top Department of Health officials, meanwhile, insist that the billboard campaign and an accompanying print advertising blitz are appropriate, and were not purposely timed to influence the vote.
“This is part of our mission is to educate the public on the dangers of tobacco use and second-hand smoke,” said Department of Health Deputy Director Roger McDaniel.
Thousands spent on billboards
The billboards are the latest incarnation of a $1.7 million state-sponsored social-marketing campaign aimed at curbing alcohol and tobacco consumption in the state, McDaniel said.
The department budgeted $435,000 for the billboards and other advertising. Funding sources are limited to state tobacco-settlement funds and federal grants, McDaniel said.
It’s unclear how many billboards have been erected around the state, as the contract with the advertising agency did not include those specifications, he added.
Designed by Colorado-based Sukle Advertising & Design, the billboards are green with bold lettering. They incorporate well-known sayings about death, but replace the words “death” or “kill” with “second-hand smoke.”
For example, the billboard version of “Ding dong, the witch is dead” was changed to “Ding dong, the witch is second-hand smoked.” “‘Til death do us part” was changed to “‘Til second-hand smoke do us part.”
Some of the billboards also include a grisly fact about the dangers of second-hand smoke:
“Second-hand smoke contains the same chemicals used in prison executions,” reads one sign.
Some critics have accused the agency of strategically placing the billboards in locations likely to be viewed by lawmakers in Cheyenne.
Critics have also expressed outrage that the state would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a topic long expected to be a major source of debate in the state Legislature.
The bill has been in the works for months, and high-ranking agency officials were involved in the process.
“Here we have a state agency that has put up their billboards, which are clearly intended to influence legislation,” said Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, an opponent of the smoke-free bill.
Fighting “deep pockets”
Wallis said it’s irrelevant that funding for the billboards is from tobacco settlement funds ‘ it’s money that belongs to the taxpayers and should not be used to influence legislation.
“It’s just always been implicitly understood what the proper relationship between the legislative branch and the executive branch is,” Wallis said.
Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, said employees of the state Department of Health are blurring the line between their role as public officials and lobbyists.
“It was convenient timing, no doubt about that,” Madden said, referring to the billboards. “I think they were programmed to coincide with these issues we are considering now.”
Mike Moser, executive director of the Wyoming State Liquor Association, an opponent of the smoke-free bill, said it’s one thing to battle other special interests, but another entirely to fight the deep pockets of the state.
“Do I think the Department of Health was intentionally lobbying during the Legislature? I don’t think so,” Moser said. “But I do think somebody should have looked at this and said, ‘Doesn’t this look bad?'”
Moser also questioned whether the billboard message is an appropriate use of the tobacco-settlement dollars. He suggested messages aimed at tobacco cessation, not second-hand smoke, are more appropriate.
“It would be one thing if all these green billboards were talking about the dangers of first-hand smoke and how to find help,” he said.
McDaniel noted that state advertising about the dangers of second-hand smoke were ongoing long before lawmakers reached Cheyenne for the session.
The recent emotional debate over HB 31 may simply be drawing more attention to the current campaign, he said.
“This isn’t anything new. We’ve been marketing smoking tobacco messages for years,” McDaniel said. “It may be that in past years when they weren’t in the middle of a heated debate on this they didn’t notice the marketing that was happening.”
Lobbying rules vague
McDaniel stopped short of calling the billboards a mistake, but he did indicate that the agency might have proceeded differently had it foreseen the discontent over the project.
“If we had perceived that someone would have thought that this campaign would have been interpreted as a lobbying technique, we wouldn’t have gone there,” he said.
Some critics have also suggested that the Department of Health has been improperly promoting HB 31 inside the capitol.
Health Department Director Dr. Brent Sherard has testified at legislative hearings about the costs and health dangers of second-hand smoke. He has also voiced his support for the bill.
Sherard was quoted in a Dec. 3 Wyoming Tribune-Eagle article saying a ban on indoor smoking is long overdue, and that 20 years from now state residents will wonder what took so long.
“It’s time we protect the health of our citizens,” Sherard said.
State agency involvement in promoting legislation can be a touchy subject around the capitol. State laws are vague on the topic.
State Attorney General Bruce Salzburg in an interview this week said there are no concrete rules regarding state employee lobbying.
“Generally what you do is you use your own common sense,” he said.
Salzburg defended Sherard’s public support for HB 31, saying Sherard is merely lending his expertise about the medical studies on the dangers of second-hand smoke to the debate.
“When Dr. Sherard goes to the state Legislature and says, ‘I support this bill,’ what he is doing in shorthand is saying, ‘Here’s a stack of studies that says second-hand smoking is bad,'” Salzburg said.
“I would be astonished if the state’s chief health officer didn’t say, ‘I support this bill,'” Salzburg said.
Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s chief of staff, Chris Boswell, said an executive order signed by former Gov. Jim Geringer provides some guidance on state employee participation in the legislative process.
While the order does not directly address the issue of lobbying, it does direct all public employees to “avoid conduct that compromises the integrity of the public office or creates the appearance of impropriety.”
The order also directs public employees to avoid “giving preferential treatment to any person” or “making decisions which are not independent and impartial.”
Wallis insists those guidelines are increasingly ignored by state employees.
“The clear spirit and intent of that order are obviously being ignored,” Wallis wrote in an e-mail she recently distributed to other lawmakers. “In my opinion, the abuses have become too blatant and too rampant to brush off any longer.”
McDaniel said agency officials have been careful to stick to health-related arguments in discussions about the smoke-free legislation.
“We’ve been very careful in working with our contractor and our partners to avoid anything that looks like lobbying,” McDaniel added. “That’s hard to do when you have an issue that’s this controversial.”
Boswell said the governor’s office did make inquiries about the billboards and state agency support for the smoke-free bill after critics complained.
He said the administration was satisfied that the Department of Health social-marketing campaign was in place before the smoke-free bill gaining endorsement from a legislative committee.
Boswell also said that it is common for agency directors to respond frankly when lawmakers ask their opinions, which may have been the case when Sherard seemed to endorse the smoke-free bill.
“I think it passed the straight-face test in terms of whether it was lobbying or simply a public relations campaign,” Boswell said.
House Bill 31, the smoke-free bill, passed the House this week and is now on its way to the Senate for introduction.
Contact capital bureau reporter Jared Miller at 307-632-1244 or email@example.com
Dear Editor, The Wicked Witch Of Wyoming
Regarding Jared Miller’s excellent Feb 7th article, “Anti-smoking billboards draw fire,” DoH officials insisted ” that the billboard campaign and an accompanying print advertising blitz are appropriate, and were not purposely timed to influence the vote.”
Who on God’s green earth is expected to believe that?? With all due respect to the WY DoH, I’ve seen similar “not purposely timed” campaigns mounted not just once or twice but many times all over the country before crucial votes.
The Wyoming legislature has only one responsible recourse in the face of this outrageous attempt to influence it via taxpayer money.? They should immediately vote to quash any discussion or decision regarding smoking bans for ONE FULL YEAR from whatever date the offending signs are removed with a warning that similar action will be taken again next year if other such offenses are committed.?
It would send a message to these rogue organizations nationwide and is truly the only way to stop such misuse of taxpayers’ money to illegally influence laws affecting those taxpayers.? If it takes dropping a house on this Wicked Witch to stop the abuse then that’s what needs to be done.
Michael J. McFadden
Author of Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains
Mid-Atlantic Director, Citizens Freedom Alliance, Inc.
Director, Pennsylvania Smokers’ Action Network (PASAN) http://pasan.TheTruthIsALie.com