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Wainwright pitches anti-smoking message in PSA, with Nixon and 40 young people

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 2, 2009 - Gov. Jay Nixon, Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright and more than 40 child anti-smoking advocates teamed up Thursday morning to try to strike out youth smoking. 

They gathered at KETC Channel 9 to film a public-service announcement geared at encouraging kids to avoid tobacco. In the spot, children will appear in Cardinals regalia with Wainwright and Nixon.

"They were so excited. We had so many kids volunteering to come," said Brad Hall, administrator for the Section for Chronic Disease Prevention & Nutrition Services in the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

The children, ranging in age from 11 to 17, come from two youth programs in Missouri -- Youth Empowerment in Action! (YEA! TEAM) and Smokebusters. The former is a media literacy program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis that focuses on anti-tobacco policy. Smokebusters is a youth anti-smoking advocacy program in the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. Both programs work with schools.

Nixon identified smoking as "a big problem" in Missouri and said smoking rates have been "way too high." Nixon and Wainwright said they are targeting anti-smoking efforts at persuading young people not to smoke.

"If we can stop smoking at a young age, we can make a real difference in people's lives," Nixon said after the shoot.

Wainwrightagreed: "When you can reach kids before they make bad decisions, then they hopefully won't make bad decisions that cost them later on in their life."

The spot is part of a broader campaign by Missouri to curb youth smoking. Margaret Donnelly, the director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, said this is the second year the department has worked with youth programs on the issue.

The kids are also getting a lesson on how the media influence their behavior and choices, especially on smoking. Donnelly said using the media is one way to change the norms surrounding smoking. She hopes the ad will change attitudes for the better and capitalize on the star power of the governor -- and the Cardinals' ace pitcher.

The TV announcement will air on Fox Sports Midwest. "We've got a network that's seen in every community in the state of Missouri," said Jack Donovan, general manager of Fox Sports Midwest.

Wainwright and Nixon also did a radio ad, which will air on Cardinals radio.

The young advocates have amassed an impressive track record already. As part of their programs, they've filmed other PSAs in their local communities, studied tobacco policy and legislation, made pamphlets and presentations and given speeches.

Becky Forristal, who teaches seventh-grade geography at Rockwood Valley Middle School in Wildwood, said her students have enjoyed the YEA! TEAM program so much that they came up with an action plan to ban secondhand smoke in Wildwood's indoor public places. Students have testified at two City Council meetings, and they will testify again this week.

Five of Forristal's students starred in the PSA. She said it was "phenomenal" to see government and sports come together for the announcement.

"To do it with the governor, who is a state-elected official who can bring changes to the state dealing with tobacco issues, is really powerful, and then to bring in the sports person, Adam Wainwright, because he's such a role model," Forristal said.

And the young people got some nice take-home gifts. They had the chance to take photos and get autographs of Wainwright after the shoot. They also got vouchers for two tickets to a Cardinals game.

Nixon has a history of working against teen smoking. As attorney general, he pressed litigation against tobacco companies for illegally marketing cigarettes to minors, eventually leading to a $6.7 billion settlement. He said Missouri was "always behind when it came to tobacco cessation."

The PSA shoot came just 10 days after President Barack Obama signed a bill giving the Food and Drug Administration more control over marketing tobacco products. Nixon expressed optimism the law would benefit anti-smoking efforts in Missouri.

"It's about time," Nixon said. "Regulation of this addictive product, which causes death and all kinds of other problems, is important."

Dave Farrell, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Cardinals, said the Missouri anti-smoking campaign takes some inspiration from a similar effort in Florida, where sports teams and networks have partnered with the Florida Department of Health.

"We think we can offer the state a great platform to reach a very broad audience and deliver the message and use the Cardinal name and Cardinal players to connect with the youth, especially about this important anti-smoking message," Farrell said.

Wainwright was coming off a long night. He tossed nine full innings and 122 pitches against the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday night, and the game stretched into the 10th inning. Still, he brushed off any concerns about whether he had recovered enough to do the shoot.

"The energy level's all right," Wainwright said with a chuckle. "I'm a little sore, a little stiff, but that's part of being a pitcher and doing what I do, so I'll get over it."

Farrell didn't seem too concerned either.

"I'm sure he's doing fine, although he'll probably need a nap sometime today," he joked.

Puneet Kollipara, an intern at the Beacon, is a student at Washington University.