Cigarettes and Children:
The Rest of the Story

By Steve Chapman
Copyright 1998 Chicago Tribune
April 26, 1998

Bill Clinton, who often seems to think he is a pediatrician rather than a president, last week demanded a tough anti-tobacco bill because "we now know from their own documents that tobacco companies targeted children." Lately, this is the argument that is supposed to end all discussion so we can get on with the lynching. Even one-time cigarette-industry-defender Newt Gingrich has been won over, complaining that manufacturers "clearly were trying to addict 14-year-olds."

These critics and many others say it's an outrage and a scandal that tobacco companies would have stooped to pursuing minors. The evidence that they did, from what we've seen so far, is hardly overwhelming. No doubt in an industry this big, which like any sector has to find new buyers in each new generation, some people gave some thought to how they might acquire a favorable image among youngsters. And it's not easy to come up with ads that appeal to 18-year-olds but have no effect at all on 17-year-olds.

But what if they market to minors? Everyone seems to have forgotten that for decades, cigarette makers had the right to do exactly that. In many states, adolescents were legally permitted to buy cigarettes at the age of 16 or 17. Until 1963, Hawaii allowed sales to 15-year-olds. In 1980, Indiana lowered the cutoff from 16 to 13, though it reversed itself two years later. And most of the laws didn't prohibit youngsters from smoking cigarettes--only from buying them.

Anti-tobacco zealots think the industry had a sacred moral obligation not to entice youngsters. But why didn't the people of the United States have an equally urgent duty to take reasonable measures to protect kids? Not until the last decade or so were laws passed banning sales from vending machines, which children can use as easily as adults. Have you ever seen a vending machine for beer?

Although every state has maintained laws against cigarette sales to children, they were enforced so rarely that they amounted to a dead letter. Before my parents quit smoking some 35 years ago, when I was in grade school, they would occasionally send me into a store to buy cigarettes, which I never had trouble doing. It wasn't unusual for high schools a generation ago to designate an outdoor area where students were allowed to smoke. Until recently, smoking by teenagers was discouraged, but it was also generally tolerated.

In 1990, the Department of Health and Human Services found that despite all the states that forbade sales to minors, only five reported the law ever being violated. The total number of violations came to only 32--this at a time when minors were buying nearly 1 billion packs of cigarettes a year.

HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan complained then that "kids can easily buy cigarettes virtually anytime they want, in violation of the law." For this, he did not heap blame on Philip Morris. "It is all too apparent," he told a Senate committee, "that we as parents, as educators, as health officials and legislators still do not take the problem of smoking among our children as seriously as we should." This was just eight years ago. But no one proposes holding the rest of us accountable for failing to act more vigorously to prevent teenage smoking.

Contrary to what Clinton and Gingrich suggest, very few young adolescents are being lured into a cruel tobacco addiction. The president laments that 3,000 kids begin smoking every day. When I called the White House press office to find his source for this estimate, I was directed to the Centers for Disease Control, which sent me a 1989 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association. But the study said nothing about children. The 3,000-a-day figure referred to 20-year-olds.

There is a technical term for the president's claim: bald-faced lying. The federal government's own National Institute on Drug Abuse says the average age at which teenagers start smoking daily is 17 years and 7 months--just short of legal adulthood.

A lot of kids sample tobacco at younger ages, but the vast majority don't get hooked. Some 47 percent of all 8th graders have tried cigarettes, but only 1 in 28 smokes as much as half a pack a day. By contrast, 54 percent of 8th graders have used alcohol--and 1 out of every 12 gets drunk at least once in a typical month. Yet you don't hear Clinton and Gingrich proposing to punish Anheuser-Busch or Miller for addicting children to a dangerous product.

By now, there is a growing consensus among Washington politicians that the tobacco companies have employed systematic deceit in cynically exploiting our children for their own selfish ends. Well, look who's talking.

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