News Column

It's Hip to Kill Tobacco: 25-Year-Old Entrepreneur Throws Parties, Makes Money and Slays the Beast

Jan. 5, 2010

Rob Kuznia --

Anti-tobacco, for profit business

Nerds have their place in this world, but serving as models of tobacco prevention isn't one of them.

Or so says 25-year-old Jeff Jordan, who believes this burden is a better fit for the shoulders of the cool kids.

And he should know.

Just seven years out of high school, the Peru native and longtime San Diego resident has built a multi-million-dollar business out of making risky behavior -- smoking in particular -- positively un-cool.

Jordan's for-profit business, called Rescue Social Change Group, contracts with state public health departments, school districts, non-profit organizations and foundations around the country to thwart the tobacco industry's attempts to get its meat-hooks into fresh young customers.

To do this, Jordan believes health advocates need to beat the tobacco industry at its own game: Selling their brand as hip and trendy. This means he must get young people to associate hating tobacco with "edgy," which can require being, well, truly edgy.

The approach can be controversial, and occasionally produces unintended consequences. Police, for instance, have raided well-attended parties organized by Rescue Social Change Group -- parties that were underwritten by state public health agencies. Once, a bathroom-humor-inspired TV commercial produced by the group comparing cigarettes to fecal matter was widely condemned in Las Vegas -- and thus praised by radio shock jock Howard Stern.

One thing you won't see at a Rescue Social Change Group event is any mention of the state public health agency that is picking up the tab. That would be un-cool.

For his part, Jordan first noticed the follies of traditional tobacco-prevention programs while volunteering for one in high school.

"A lot of it was just preaching to the choir," he told "Kids who hated the tobacco industry got together and talked about how they hated the tobacco industry. ... I personally felt there was a better way to go."

Rescue Social Change Group currently has clients in about a dozen states, and also works to eradicate other societal ills, such as binge drinking, obesity and violence.

But the bulk of the business -- at least 60 percent -- is dedicated to preventing people ages 18-26 from lighting up.

In recent years, Jordan's nine-year-old company has generated its share of buzz.

For one thing, it's profitable. In 2008, Rescue Social Change Group, which employs 30 people, brought home $3 million, more than tripling its $810,000 revenues in 2005. (Jordan declined to divulge his salary.) In September, it was named the 13th fastest growing company in San Diego by San Diego Business Journal, and the 21st fastest growing company in the San Diego area by Inc Magazine.

Even more important, public health officials say, the company's often-controversial approach to combating the tobacco industry works.

"He's brilliant," Maria Azzarelli, tobacco control coordinator for the Southern Nevada Health District, told "I've done this my whole adult life, since graduating college in 1999. Meeting Jeff transformed everything."

Azzarelli gives Jordan's company most of the credit for a dramatic plunge in teen smoking in the Las Vegas area. From 1999 to 2007, the proportion of high schoolers in the region who smoke has plummeted from 33 percent to 13.5 percent. It's the second-biggest drop in the nation.

To be sure, the impressive numbers come at a time when tobacco use among teens is on the decline. Nationwide, from 1999 to 2007, tobacco use among high schoolers dropped in from 35 percent to 20 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But in at least some Rescue Social Change Group locations, the results exceed the norm.

In Virginia, home to cigarette giant Phillip Morris, the state hired Rescue Social Change Group in 2003. A few years later, Virginia was among just five states in the nation to post a decline in smoking among high-schoolers from 2005 to 2007, said Danny Saggese, director of marketing for Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth.

"They are pretty phenomenal," he said. "They've done a lot to motivate us into realizing that it's extremely important to segment your audience."

At the root of Jordan's method is an age-old marketing principle: If you're trying to reach everyone, you reach no one.

"The kids who are at the center of youth subculture -- the mainstream -- have very low smoking rates, like 3 or 4 percent," Saggese said. "As you go away from the center -- on one side the skater, rocker, emo, goth kids, and on the other, hip hop culture -- the smoking rates go up significantly."

These are the people that Rescue Social Change Group targets.

The company often reaches them by recruiting the coolest people within each sub-culture. This unusual technique requires the aid of a kind of talent scout, who must observe people interacting and eventually approach the trendsetters.

"These are the people who for a long time have been targeted by the tobacco industry," Jordan explains. "They are more confident, more talkative. They have larger networks. You look at them, and they are more fashionable, kind of walking around in that bar more, and always seem to have people around them."

Rescue Social Change Group doesn't ask them to become anti-tobacco preachers. They don't even require them to quit smoking. The idea is to get them to buy into the value of kicking the habit. If that happens, others will usually follow.

The approach isn't impervious to slipups. Sometimes, trying to attract an edgy crowd can produce raucous results. Saggese said the Virginia Department of Public Health became a victim of its own success a couple years ago, when a hip-hop event drew 700 kids -- forcing them to turn away 200. There were a few fights, and the agency had to re-group.

To ensure buy-in from other authorities, the public health agency decided to put the program up for certification from an institutional review board. It got the stamp of approval, and re-launched the hip-hop campaign during the first weekend in December. The first party was called "2 Up 2 Down" -- slang for how holding two fingers up and down forms a "VA" for "Virginia."

At the event, DJs played music, and em cees occasionally laced their banter with anti-tobacco messages such as: "We gittin' down smoke free and fight free." Or: "Do you. I'll do me smoke free." (Translation: Smoke if you must, but none for me.)

Posters and T-shirts blasting the tobacco industry were also on site.

"It has to be said to them in a language and lingo that makes sense to them," Saggese said. "The message has to talk to them. Not like me talking to them: an old gray-haired guy. It has to be from somebody who is essentially cooler than they are."

Source: (c) 2010. All rights reserved.

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