Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Jeanne Weigum convinced her fellow activists to snub out an antismoking billboard campaign
Craig Bares

Used to be it was easy to be an activist: Save the manatee here, ban some asbestos there. Maybe you'd print up a few flyers to post in storefront windows, or stage a little protest march with handheld signs and quaint group cheers. Maybe you'd find yourself in the midst of a real honest-to-goodness social movement.

But times have changed, and causes can get complex, sometimes intertwining in precarious places. So have some sympathy for Jeanne Weigum.

Since 1973 Jeanne Weigum has been a fervent antismoking crusader. She started a nonprofit called the Association for Nonsmokers of Minnesota, which has tackled such issues as workplace smoking, smoke-free restaurants, and teen smoking, and she helped to enforce the 1975 Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act. In the past two and a half years, following the 1998 settlement of Minnesota's lawsuit against the tobacco industry, she has served on the board of the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco (MPAAT), a nonprofit that is responsible for using some of the $6 billion in settlement money.

Weigum has also spent years working on St. Paul's grassroots anti-billboard campaign with all the zeal of a tireless visionary as a member of Scenic Minnesota. The city has been embroiled in a debate over billboards since 1984, when outdoor advertising was banned on Grand Avenue. In 1997 the city council approved a temporary citywide moratorium, but Mayor Norm Coleman vetoed it. The council has since permitted community councils to declare moratoriums, which many quickly did. In 1999 voters rejected a ballot measure introduced by Scenic Minnesota to remove all billboards within five years. Currently, no new billboards can be built in St. Paul, and any that come down can't be replaced.

And so it was that earlier this spring, when MPAAT hatched a plan to use billboards to campaign against tobacco use, Weigum's two causes collided, and the activist appeared to have painted herself into a corner. "I've been in the spotlight on both of these for so long," she chuckles. "Lo and behold, suddenly we were here. Because I care, I couldn't just say, 'Oh, well, never mind.'"

MPAAT had planned to spend $6.4 million to place a series of chilling ads denouncing the dangers of secondhand smoke on television, radio, buses, and bus stops. And in June, MPAAT plans to have a smoking cessation "quit line" up and running; smokers trying to quit can call for counseling. The hotline was to have been promoted via billboards.

In March Weigum began pressing her cohorts at MPAAT to consider not using the billboards. Initially, her efforts didn't go well and Weigum rallied only one other board member. "Some members of the MPAAT board thought that I was being a left-wing weirdo."

Frustrated, she turned to some of St. Paul's heavy hitters, including state Rep. Alice Hausman and city council member and mayoral candidate Jay Benanav, for help in lobbying MPAAT's board. It worked: On May 16 the board voted 12-4 not to use billboards for the campaign.

"The two issues are important to [Weigum]," says Hausman, a DFLer from St. Paul. "What struck me was that the board didn't understand what she was saying."

What Weigum says she was saying was that in addition to being an irritant, billboards might not be the most economical way to spend the antismoking windfall. Compared with television and radio spots, billboards are a relatively cheap form of advertising. But if the goal is to create more public awareness for MPAAT's campaigns, Weigum argues, billboards are a waste of money: There are so many of them out there that people are desensitized to their messages. "Billboards get tuned out very quickly, after people see them once," Weigum notes, adding that many suburbs, including Shoreview, Minnetonka, and Edina, don't allow billboards.

She says that MPAAT would get more bang for its buck by advertising in community newspapers: "The Pioneer Press is recycled immediately, whereas these other newspapers sit around for weeks, and there's a real connection to the community."

Brian Bates, a member of both the nonsmokers association and Scenic Minnesota, says Weigum "was standing right in the middle of the intersection." "If you assume that using billboards would be effective in what MPAAT was hoping to advance, then they should use them," he opines.

A private nonprofit, MPAAT was formed in September 1998 by a court order. Former Ramsey County Chief Judge Lawrence D. Cohen decreed that the organization would have a board composed of 19 appointed volunteers, a full-time staff of 7, and a lifespan of 25 years. MPAAT would be expected to spend its projected $202 million share of the settlement to figure out ways to get Minnesotans to quit smoking.

In addition, the group was to get its funding directly from the tobacco companies that had settled with the state, placing it out of the reach of lawmakers. Since MPAAT's formation, critics have claimed the organization is not accountable to the public, and that there are no guarantees that its share of the settlement won't be spent frivolously.

In addition to sharing Weigum's disdain for billboards, Hausman also has concerns about whether MPAAT is spending such a large amount of money on a truly fruitful tactic. "I hope [MPAAT's board members] aren't just talking about ads for smoking cessation," she says. "They need to step back and look at what actually changes behavior in this regard. I would think that they wouldn't just spend money because they have it. I'd rather that they put it in the bank for a while and look at the research."

Randy Kelly, a state senator from St. Paul's East Side who is also running for mayor, disagrees. He declined to join Hausman's and Weigum's efforts, and he argues that billboards are effective. Why else, he asks, would tobacco companies have peppered his district with them for so many years? "There was not enough time to think through whether we should be tying the hands of folks who are trying to reach teens about smoking," Kelly says. "The scales would have to weigh heavier on trying to make decisions about the health of the young people, rather than us taking up the billboards cause."

Weigum recognizes that her conundrum, now resolved, is ironic--especially for someone who for so long has insisted that no anti-tobacco effort is wasted. But she says both of her crusades are good ones, and she refuses to pick one over the other.

"The idea of a choice between dying Minnesotans and billboards didn't wash with me," she concludes. "If I felt 10,000 people in Minnesota will die today because there are no billboards, I might feel different. I think there are other ways to campaign against smoking."

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