We're perplexed with the furor over teen tobacco use, especially compared to the yawns that greeted the latest news on teens and drugs. The number of young smokers is rising, but so's the number of young drug users - and more quickly.
The percentage of eighth-graders who admit to smoking marijuana in the previous month has tripled in surveys since '91. For high school sophomores and seniors, the growth rates in dope use are high as well -higher than the one-third rise in teen smoking over the same time ee chart).
Except for alcohol, usage rates across a host of drugs have risen disturbingly.
Why the rise? Fewer teens think doing drugs is dangerous. For instance, in '91, some 30% of high school sophomores said trying marijuana once or twice posed a ''great risk.'' Last year, the number dropped below 20%.
But these trends have taken place against the backdrop of tens of billions of tax dollars spent on the drug war. After nearly scrapping the drug czar's office early in his first term, President Clinton has restored staffing to former levels. Come summer, a nearly $200 million- a-year media campaign will roll out for a five-year run.
Teens, it seems thus far, are immune to the current anti-drug message. Does Washington think that spending the same kind of money on anti-smoking programs will work better?
As noble as these programs are, they show that government is ill-equipped to stem the rising tide of smoking and drug use. Only parents and a constant message from the culture can persuade kids of the folly of cigarettes and drugs.
Indeed, Clinton, as the chief spokesman for government, has said one thing and done another when it's come to drugs. His well-publicized toying with marijuana and his MTV appearance when he said he'd inhale ''if I could'' told kids and their '60s-era parents that drugs are cool.
And just Monday, the Clinton administration said needle-exchange programs for drug addicts would not boost drug use. Needle programs make about as much sense as furnishing free cigarettes to the millions having nicotine fits. Just ask countries such as Switzerland and the Netherlands if they've seen a rise in heroin use because of their needle programs.
On smoking, Clinton has been more consistent. He bemoans the effect of cigarettes ''on the children.'' But the kids still light up.
But it's not just government that's failing. Parents must take a big part of the blame. Surveys have shown that kids' decisions to smoke tobacco and/or dope depend more on what their parents and friends tell them than on any advertising or policy.
Yet a poll by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America this month showed baby boom parents in denial about their children's exposure to drugs. Only 20% of parents acknowledged the possibility that their children may have used marijuana, while 44% of kids said they actually have.
Tobacco use doesn't bode well for any kid's long-term health. Illicit drugs, though, wreck lives far more swiftly and, at times, with a finality that cries out for public attention. Just look at the nation's highways, littered with the bodies of young people, high on alcohol and other drugs, who thought themselves invulnerable.
Washington should realize that of the two problems, teen drug use is far more serious. It should also admit that government cannot solve all the problems facing families.
Only families can - and they should.
Copyright © 1998 Steven J. Milloy. All rights reserved. Site developed and hosted by WestLake Solutions, Inc.