Anti-Smoking Ad Ignites Debate In Iowa

A billboard ad sponsored by an anti-smoking group compares daily deaths from tobacco-related illnesses to the populations of small Iowa towns, including Lake View. Lake View Mayor John Westergaard weighs in on the ads.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Tobacco can kill this town in one day. That's the message on two billboards near Lake View, Iowa, and the message has angered some local officials. Lake View has a population of about 1,200 people, and that's also the estimated number of people who die each day around the country from tobacco-related illnesses.

An anti-smoking group called Just Eliminate Lies or JEL put up the billboards, and Mayor John Westergaard would like them taken down. He joins us from Lake View. Mayor Westergaard, when did you first see these signs?

Mayor JOHN WESTERGAARD (Lake View, Iowa): I saw the first sign Monday afternoon.

BLOCK: And what did you think when you saw it?

Mayor WESTERGAARD: Well, I was shocked. I turned around and went back to make sure that what I saw is what was there. I was stunned, and I felt that we were put in a negative light. It made Lake View look like we were a dead town is what I felt like.

BLOCK: And you got the connection, obviously, that it was an anti-smoking billboard?

Mayor WESTERGAARD: Yeah, and I appreciate the efforts that they do on that, but I felt that, if they were going to use Lake View, they should have or would have asked us permission or talked to us about it, or it just seemed to be a - in my opinion, it was a negative comment about our community.

BLOCK: You know, as the mayor of a small town, you must feel pretty protective of Lake View?

Mayor WESTERGAARD: Yes, like - well, I think you'll find that, in most small towns, in Iowa anyway, a large percentage of the population was born and raised here. They've lived their entire lives here, and it's a close-knit community that likes to have positive comments about it, not negative ones. And we felt this was a negative connotation that Lake View is a dying town. That's how we interpret that sign.

BLOCK: Is Lake View a dying town?

Mayor WESTERGAARD: No. No. You know, in Iowa, there's not a lot of large communities other than the big cities here about. But in small towns, we're one of the few that's growing. We have a large lake. We have a state campground. We have a city campground. We have large parks, and we're working next summer on redoing our downtown main street. So, we have a lot of things going while most towns in Iowa are dying, but there's nothing left.

BLOCK: I imagined that the anti-tobacco folks would say that, you know, the best advertisement are the ones that shock. You have to sort of jolt people out of their seat, make them turn their car around.

Mayor WESTERGAARD: We're well aware of that shock is the way they do this anymore. I just think there could have been a better way to shock them, I guess. This just didn't happen to suit us.

BLOCK: What are you hearing from the people who live in Lake View about this?

Mayor WESTERGAARD: You know, if you go to a small town in Iowa at nine o' clock when the old people get their mail, they're going to tell you what they think. And a great number of them have come up to me, and they said, you should do something and give them the dickens and see if they can't get them to take them down. So, we're going to do our best.

BLOCK: That's your job, to give them the dickens, huh?

Mayor WESTERGAARD: Well, that's - yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mayor WESTERGAARD: And that's exactly what we're - you know, and we understand we have to talk back and forth and get this worked out. I just don't think the state will bow to our wishes, but at least they're going to know what they are.

BLOCK: Yeah. Well, Mayor Westergaard, good to talk to you. Thanks very much.

Mayor WESTERGAARD: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: John Westergaard is the mayor of Lake View, Iowa, one of the towns targeted in the anti-smoking marketing campaign, What Town is Next?

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