BOB GARFIELD: Smoking among teenagers fell dramatically in the years between 1997 and 2002, according to the American Journal of Public Health. A study they conducted last year attributed more than 20 percent of that drop to a series of television and radio ads known collectively as the Truth Campaign. The ads are invariably edgy, satirical and blunt. [CLIP OF ADVERTISEMENT]
MAN: Tobacco companies make a product that kills about 440,000 Americans a year. That's more than illegal narcotics, AIDS, suicide, gun violence, fires, automobile accidents, hurricanes, earthquakes, knife fights, judo chops, axe murderers - [END OF CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: The American Legacy Foundation, which created the truth® campaign, is funded with money from the tobacco industry, part of 1998's master settlement agreement reached between the industry and 46 states. According to the terms of the MSA, Big Tobacco would bankroll the foundation's anti-smoking campaign, provided the ads did not, quote, "vilify or personally attack." But those terms were never clearly defined, and Lorillard Tobacco Company sued the Legacy Foundation. Legacy won the lawsuit last fall, but the appeal is being argued now in the Delaware Supreme Court. William Sorrell is Chairman of the Board of the Legacy Foundation. He's also Vermont's Attorney General, and he joins me now. Mr. Attorney General, welcome to On the Media.
WILLIAM SORRELL: Well, thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: The case is now in the hands of the Delaware Supreme Court, which heard final oral arguments just a week or so ago. A five-judge panel will issue a decision in the coming months, but what is at stake here? What will happen to Legacy and the truth® campaign if Lorillard wins this appeal?
WILLIAM SORRELL: Well, if Lorillard wins, then probably the best-case scenario for Legacy is that it's defanged. Worst-case scenario is that the court would order all of the money that's been given by the industry to create Legacy to be turned back to the industry, and then there would be no effective voice to counter the billions of dollars in annual marketing that the tobacco companies do in this country.
BOB GARFIELD: Which raises the question, why run the risk of losing those hundreds of millions of dollars by doing ads that so clearly hold tobacco companies up to ridicule or worse?
WILLIAM SORRELL: Well, during the negotiation of the master settlement agreement, the attorneys general were very insistent on the fact that the traditional advertising to kids of adults sort of pointing their finger at them, saying, you know, you shouldn't smoke, it's bad for you, it's addictive, you'll be sick, you'll die early, just hadn't worked. And the thought was that we wanted to have an organization that would be independent and would speak to kids in their own language, but not to step over that line into vilification. And the A.G.s have considered vilification to certainly involve whether what Legacy is saying is true, that if what it was saying was true, then it's hard to say it was slanderous or libelous or vilifying. And that's been part of the fight before the Delaware courts.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's listen to an excerpt from one of your radio ads to see just how close you get to the line or whether you indeed cross it. [CLIP OF ADVERTISEMENT] [PHONE RINGING]
MAN: Good afternoon. Lorillard.
JOHN: Hello, ma'am. My name's John. I was hoping I could talk to someone about a business idea. I'm a professional dog walker by trade.
JOHN: And, and my dogs, well, they pee a lot. Why not collect it and, and sell it to you tobacco people? See, dog pee is full of urea, and that's one of the chemicals in cigarettes, and I was just hoping to make a little extra spending cash, you know, under the table, you know [CHUCKLING] what I'm saying? Let's see, I got Chihuahua, Golden Retriever, I got some high-test Rottweiler pee and it's all good stuff. [END CLIP OF ADVERTISEMENT]
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] High-test.
WILLIAM SORRELL: What a great ad.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah. [LAUGHS] Okay, it's wonderful.
WILLIAM SORRELL: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Now, how is connecting Lorillard with the sale of urea, true or not, not vilifying, demonizing and holding the company up to public ridicule?
WILLIAM SORRELL: First of all, it's true that there is urea in tobacco products. This was a hard-hitting ad, but we did not in the ad name the CEO or others in the hierarchy of any company. We didn't equate them to Nazi Germany or Attila the Hun. We could have done a lot further and gotten into the waters of vilification.
BOB GARFIELD: But that's [LAUGHS], that's your case? You think this is vilification? Let me show you vilification. That's your case. [LAUGHS]
WILLIAM SORRELL: Sure. Well, that's in part the case. Legacy has not been cavalier about the restrictions under which it has to live. There's also an anti-smoking campaign that came out of the state of Florida that was not part of the MSA, where tobacco industry executives are in hell - and I don't know whether Hitler was there and maybe Idi Amin and some others � much more harder-hitting, if you will, then what the Legacy campaign ads have been. And, you know, as the scientific studies have shown, the truth® campaign has worked, and up through 2002, 300,000 young Americans not smoking directly attributable to the truth® campaign. So that's [LAUGHING] long-term Legacy benefits for the public health of this country.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Mr. Sorrell, thank you so much.
WILLIAM SORRELL: Thank you. Have a great day.
BOB GARFIELD: Attorney General William Sorrell of Vermont is Chairman of the Board of the American Legacy Foundation. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, psychoanalysis in cinema for Freud's birthday.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media for NPR. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] END SEGMENT A STATION BREAK ONE (MUSIC)