Smoking rates among teens in Pierce County are higher than the rest of the state. So the health department came up with an edgy and aggressive campaign to fight it. But some parents say it goes too far.
Beth Smith was with her family at the Pierce County Fair in Graham last weekend, when her 12 and 16-year-old daughters were approached by two teenage boys handing out free gum. The boys were wearing bright t-shirts with a suggestive phrase.
"It says 'Suck on this,' neon t-shirts," said Beth Smith, mother of two girls. "And I looked at my husband and I thought 'You punks. Get away from my kids.'"
Smith soon discovered that the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department is using the shirts as a part of a new aggressive anti-smoking campaign.
"It draws your attention because you're like 'What is this? This is kind of offensive,'" said health department spokesperson Edie Jeffers. "Well, cigarette smoking and the health effects of cigarettes smoking and tobacco use is offensive."
If you look closely at the small print below the "Suck on this" phrase, it says "One hour of hookah equals 150 cigarettes."
The health department reached out to teenagers themselves for ideas on how to fight Big Tobacco. That's where the in-your-face images and slogans came from.
"We were intentionally edgy, and that's where our focus group input led us," said Jeffers.
"Those t-shirts wouldn't be acceptable in school," countered Smith. "It's a lewd comment, it's offensive, it's repulsive, and it's such a sexual phrase."
But in an age where kids are bombarded with ad images, the health department says it's in a David and Goliath battle, working with less than 50 thousand dollars on an ad campaign, compared to the millions from the tobacco industry.
"We've got to take our limited prevention dollars and really leverage them," said Jeffers. "For us, it's a way to get kids talking, and yeah, get parents talking too."