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Breathing Lessons



Published February 9, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

Decades of watching TV with an analytical eye can make you cynical. I know because it happened to me. This realization was driven home recently when I made a humbling discovery.

For this month's column I'd decided to look into a public service announcement that had attracted my attention -- that 30-second anti-tobacco message featuring a 9-year-old girl named Krystell Laffin. In the ad she tells the viewer, "All my friends say, 'Oh, I want to be like my mom when I grow up,' and I can't say that because, if I said that, they would think I mean I want to start smoking when I'm 10..."

The spot concludes with footage of a youngish blond woman in a hospital bed. She's hooked up to a pulmonary device and struggling to take a breath. Then these words appear across the screen: "Cigarettes killed Krystell's mom."

My media-critic brain thought something wasn't quite right here. When my family was sitting around the television and the ad came on, I asked them, "Doesn't that seem odd to you? This woman is dead, but somehow there's video of her in her hospital room and professionally recorded footage of her daughter talking about her while she was still alive. Why would all this be shot years ago for a TV spot that's airing now? Who plans something like that?"

I even speculated that the people in the spot might be actors playing a generic victim family. After a few minutes of Googling, I realized how wrong I'd been. The woman in the ad, I learned, was not an actress; she was a remarkable individual named Pam Laffin, and her tragic story is one she wanted every child to hear.

Laffin began smoking at age 10 in the basement of her childhood home near Boston. "Did you ever see the movie Grease?" she once asked an interviewer. "I made my mother take me to get a perm so I could have curly hair like Sandy's. It seemed like most of the people in her new school didn't accept her, and she started smoking and then she was friends with everybody. So I thought maybe, if I smoked, I could be like her."

When she was 21, Laffin developed chronic bronchitis. She came down with the condition four times that year, and began to suffer from bronchial asthma as well. When she was 23, Laffin was diagnosed with chronic asthma; the following year, with emphysema. If she continued to smoke, Laffin's physician told her, she'd be dead before she was 30. "When I'm 30," she remembered thinking, "my older daughter will be 13. That's about the time kids need their parents the most. I made the decision that I wouldn't smoke anymore."

Laffin did quit. Unfortunately, it was too late. She underwent a lung transplant a year later, but her body rejected the donor organ. Too frail to withstand another surgery right away, she underwent pulmonary rehab and hoped she'd get well enough to make the waiting list for another lung.

During this period Laffin was in constant pain and dependent on family members for her care. Simply breathing was backbreaking, exhausting work. This might be about the time that some people would throw in the towel. Pam Laffin decided to use the time she had left to warn every kid she could to not make the mistake she'd made. Despite being confined to a wheelchair and suffering relentlessly, Laffin embarked on an anti-smoking crusade that proved nothing short of heroic.

Over the next few years she traveled throughout Massachusetts and to several other states. She told her story at schools, visited youth organizations and spoke to addicts trying to quit. She talked bluntly about what smoking had done to her life, and asked the young people in her audiences to consider what it could do to theirs.

Laffin found the largest audience of her life when the Massachusetts Department of Public Health recruited her for a series of TV commercials in the mid-'90s. In these spots she displayed her trademark naked honesty. She allowed a crew to film her bronchoscopy. She revealed the scars that surgery had left across her back. She looked into the camera and spoke about the ways in which her body had been deformed, how emphysema had left her with "a fat face" and "a lump on my neck." Laffin also displayed a sense of humor. At the close of one spot she noted ironically, "I started smoking to look older. I'm sorry to say, it worked."

The ads had an immediate impact. The number of calls into the state's "try to stop" hotline skyrocketed, many of them from young people. MTV and PBS both made documentaries about Laffin's life and message. She appeared on national programs such as "Good Morning America." Laffin became the country's most prominent and influential anti-smoking activist. Ultimately the U.S. Centers for Disease Control caught on and produced a 20-minute educational video chronicling her experience. "I Can't Breathe" was designed to spark classroom discussion among 11- to 14-year-olds concerning the perils of smoking.

The spots in which Pam Laffin appears today incorporate footage from the television PSAs and the CDC video. This explains why Krystell speaks about her as though she were still alive. Laffin reportedly had particularly strong emotions about her daughter's part in the campaign. She told a reporter at the time, "What I've been doing for the past four years or so has been aimed at kids. And this is aimed at adults. Look at my daughter who I hurt deeply... Maybe a mother can look at my life and say, 'This could be me. This could be my child.'"

Laffin died on October 31, 2000, at the age of 31 -- just three weeks before a scheduled second lung transplant. She has been honored by numerous organizations, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which posthumously gave her its "Champion Award." Laffin went far in that wheelchair.

A website provided on the current ads in turn offers a link to the CDC's site, where viewers can learn more about Pam Laffin and order a copy of "I Can't Breathe." Except you can't -- get the video, that is; the title is "Currently Not Available for Order." Once again, something didn't seem quite right, so I emailed the CDC asking why the video isn't available. Here in part is the response I received: "Thank you for your interest in our products. The video 'I Can't Breathe' was a very popular item and is out of stock. We do not know at this time if [we] will receive additional copies of this item in 2005..."

I guess a federal health agency wouldn't want to keep in stock a highly effective and "very popular" tobacco prevention tool. Particularly in light of statistics showing that 800,805 kids in the U.S. became regular smokers in the past year and that 256,258 of them will likely die prematurely from their addiction. Maybe the CDC's educational materials are managed by the same geniuses who neglected to order adequate supplies of flu vaccine. Or, maybe one of the cigarette giants bought up all the copies and paid a little extra for new ones to not be supplied. After all, the CDC produced the video -- shouldn't the agency know if it will be receiving "additional copies"? All it has to do is make them.

Am I cynical to suggest that Big Business and the Bush administration might be involved here? Maybe not, in light of last Thursday's under-the-radar Senate Judiciary Committee passage of the "Class Action Fairness" bill. The legislation makes it harder for citizens to hold tobacco companies accountable for years of advertising that misled the public.

Something smells funny about this, and I think Pam Laffin deserves better. So do the kids her video was supposed to help save.

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