Ed Barbini, a staff writer for Staten Island Advance, wrote, Friday, November 13, 1987, when a Wall Street trader paid $100,000 to charity just to talk to the mayor, he must have had an important message. And when that messenger came to Prall Intermediate School yesterday, the students got to hear a free version that could pay life-saving dividends in the future.
“I can add years to your life if you listen to me,” the messenger, Joe Cherner, told six-grader students at the West Brighton school. “If one of you can turn away from cigarettes because of me, then I’ve done my job.”
Cherner, 29, made headlines earlier this year when he offered $100,000 donation to charity in exchange for a meeting with Mayor Edward I. Koch. When aides of the mayor declined, Cherner donated the money anyway.
When the Manhattan native repeated the offer in July, Koch didn’t give his assistants a chance to turn him down. The mayor picked up the tab for lunch, and Cherner agreed to contribute another $61,000 in prize money for an advertising contest open to all city school children.
That’s how “The New York City Anti-Smoking Ad Contest” was born. Students can put their butts on the line until the Dec. 24 deadline to devise a newspaper, radio or TV ad, and the top prize is a $10,000 bond and an appearance on “Good Morning America.”
“Most anti-smoking campaigns are targeted at adults, but it’s the children who are the most likely to start smoking,” Cherner said, citing statistics showing that 60 percent of all smokers start before age 14. “If this contest can get our students to think about the ways they are manipulated by the advertising campaigns from tobacco companies, they will realize some of the fallacies about smoking.
The contest has been endorsed by the Board of Education, and the results will be judged by a panel that includes Koch, U.S. Senator Alphone M. D’Amato, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and Dr. Stephen Joseph, the city Health Commissioner.
Interested students can ask school officials how to apply. Entries can be sent to The Anti-Smoking Ad Contest, c/o Joe Cherner, 375 South End Ave., Suite 32F, New York, N.Y. 10280.
“It’s important to get to these kids while they are still impressionable,” said Allen Fisk, an assistant principal at Prall. “If they can’t learn from us about the health dangers of smoking, then they aren’t likely to figure it out on their own.”
Cherner has testified before the City Council in favor of a proposed law that would limit the public places that permit smoking. The bill, which is expected to be supported by the mayor, should be approved by the Council later this year.
The sponsor of the ad contest has an answer for the people who wonder why he is willing to spend so much money on anti-smoking efforts. The answer is that he doesn’t really know why he does it.
“I don’t have any secrets in my closet, and I don’t have any relatives who died a terrible death from lung cancer.” Cherner said. But I can’t stand second-hand smoke, and I can’t stand the fact that more people will die of cigarette-related diseases in America this year than of any other illness.”
Cherner came to the West Brighton school armed with leaflets, videotapes, and a rap-singer musician name “Ernest Super Cooper.” He also came armed with quick answers to the questions of Prall students.
When one six-grader wondered why her grandmother was in good health despite smoking for 50 years, Cherner said there was always a small chance that would happen.
“Of course, if I put a blindfold on you and asked you to walk across the busiest intersection in Staten Island, there’s a small chance you might not get hit, either – but is it a smart thing to do? He asked the students. “If you’re going to tempt fate by smoking, you’re got a better chance of not being hit by a car than by not developing lung cancer.”