Teen Smoking Campaign Flops

by Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe Columnist
Copyright 1998 The Boston Globe
April 7,1998

To win the War on Tobacco, antismoking strategists have long insisted, the focus must be on teens.

Smokers, after all, start young. According to the surgeon general's 1994 report, the average age at which American smokers first try cigarettes is 14 1/2. The average age at which they become daily smokers is 17 1/2. "Nicotine addiction is a pediatric disease that often begins at 12, 13, and 14," says David Kessler, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and staunch enemy of the tobacco industry, "only to manifest itself at 16 and 17, when these children find they cannot quit."

To fight this "pediatric disease," the sale of cigarettes to minors has been made illegal in every state. Tobacco ads have been banned from television and radio and eliminated from publications and shows aimed primarily at young people. Joe Camel, harshly (and probably inaccurately) condemned as seductive to children, has been dropped from R.J. Reynolds's advertising.

The National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids has raised more than $32 million since 1996. The proposed tobacco settlement has drawn intense coverage. Among its requirements: that cigarette companies supply $500 million a year to pay for antismoking education programs, that cigarette vending machines be banned everywhere, and that all tobacco billboards and promotional materials and product placement in movies and TV shows be forbidden.

Minors, meanwhile, have been bombarded with antismoking messages. The warning labels on cigarette packs have been made more explicit and alarming. In states as diverse as Arizona, California, and Massachusetts, higher cigarette taxes have gone to pay for lavish antismoking campaigns. Many school districts have altered their health curricula to include graphic lessons on the dangers of tobacco. Private organizations have held antitobacco poster contests and used children's artwork in ads that warn against smoking. One ad created by SmokeFree Educational Services features a fifth-grader's drawing of a skeleton in a cowboy hat riding his horse through a graveyard. The slogan: "Come to Where the Cancer Is."

In short, American kids have been exposed in recent years to the most intense antismoking campaign in history. The result?

An explosion of teenage smoking.

Between 1991 and 1997, smoking rates among high school students jumped from 27.5 percent to 36.4 percent - a jolting one-third increase. According to figures just released by the federal Centers for Disease Control, 40 percent of white high school girls say they have smoked a cigarette at least once in the past 30 days; 20 percent say they smoke frequently. Black kids are smoking cigarettes at a rate 80 percent greater than they were seven years ago. Add in cigars and chewing tobacco, and more than half of all white teenage boys are users: 51.5 percent report using some form of tobacco during the past month.

Crunch the data any way you like, the massive anti-teen-smoking crusade has been a disaster. Countless millions of dollars have been poured into convincing youngsters not to smoke, yet a larger share of them are smoking every day. It is hard to imagine a more thoroughgoing failure. So will the antitobacco warriors, humbled by such a defeat, call off their jihad?

Of course not. They will demand even more restrictions, impose even higher taxes, curse tobacco companies even more loudly. They will insist that the law go even further to deprive smokers of the right to choose. And all, of course, for "the kids."

The moment the CDC numbers were released, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala was ready with a save-the-kids quote. "We're losing ground in the battle to protect our children," she said. "Congress must act promptly to enact comprehensive tobacco control legislation to protect our children." Al Gore was ready, too: "This report gives us dramatic proof that we must continue to fight to protect our young people from the dangerous lure of tobacco."

But imposing ever-tougher sanctions isn't going to make kids lose interest in smoking. The more the government preaches that cigarettes are nasty, rude, and reckless, the more some teenagers will want to smoke. What better way to get restive adolescents to do something than to hector them constantly not to do it? Smoking is so wicked that adults are demonizing even a cartoon camel? Wow! Lemme try one.

For more than a century, teens have been told that smoking is bad for them; for more than a century, some teens have taken up smoking. Just as some teens have taken up liquor, some have taken up reckless driving, and some have taken up drugs. All are illegal. All are, for that very reason, more appealing and "cool." Short of adopting dictatorial controls, there are limits to what any government can do to stop teenagers from experimenting with.

We have made it illegal for minors to acquire tobacco; we have made sure they know that smoking is unhealthy; we have jacked up the price of cigarettes with state and federal taxes. That much makes sense. Anything more - the bans on tobacco-logo T-shirts, the Joe Camel insanity, the persecution of restaurant owners - is hysteria. And as the new statistics suggest, nothing makes tobacco more alluring to adolescents than hysterical grown-ups admonishing them not to smoke.

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