Smoked: Are Teen Smokers the Problem?

Wednesday, January 19, 2000
Common Courage Press
submitted by Joel Moskowitz

The Smoking Gun -- Part I
The key to stopping our nation's smoking habit--which kills 400,000 or more Americans every year and is projected to be killing 10 million a year worldwide by 2005--is to prevent teens from starting. Over time that will reduce the death toll because fewer people will be smoking. One obvious pressure point is to eliminate advertising aimed at children. Criminalizing it for youth smokers can also reduce teen smoking. Now, with the tobacco settlement, we really have the companies on the run.

That's the conventional wisdom, but in Smoked: Why Joe Camel Is Still Smiling, Mike Males shows how that perspective actually plays into the hands of Big Tobacco rather than reducing the number of smokers.

1. First, take the tobacco settlement in which Big Tobacco pays $246 billion to the states that sued over the next 25 years. In return, the industry gets limits on health-related civil suits. A sweet deal, compared with the $516 billion in lawsuits previously scuttled by Congress after record lobbying by the industry. Worse, the $246 billion is tax-deductible, meaning that the outlay will only be half to two-thirds that amount. Here's the kicker: the structure of the deal is a disincentive for states to adopt anti-smoking measures that really work. Payments to the states will be reduced if the rate of smoking drops, making it in the interest of the states to keep rates high and maintain the payment level. It's no wonder that in the five months following the settlement and in an otherwise somewhat bearish market, Big Tobacco's stocks jumped 53%.

2. "The strategy of anti-smoking groups to treat teenagers as an enemy requiring denigration, lecturing, and punishment has proven popular but disastrously counterproductive.... In fact, teen smoking had fallen sharply for 20 years (60% from the mid-1970s to 1992) absent coercion before authorities of the 1990s decided to institute increasingly draconian punishments against youths who tried tobacco. Montana teenagers could legally buy cigarettes and chewing tobacco in the 1980s, yet (even in the heart of Marlboro Country) their rates of tobacco use were the lowest of any state in the nation--lower than states which aimed legal bans and draconian penalties at teen smoking," writes Males.

3. One reason why targeting teens doesn't work is that smoking gets painted as an adult activity, giving it allure for those who most want to be adult: teens. It's a paradox that RJ Reynolds took advantage of in full page ads saying, "Only adults should ever face the decision to smoke or not."

4. But wait a minute: what about those evil Joe Camel ads; didn't they seduce kids to smoke? A surprising answer: the evidence doesn't support it. As Males writes, "The biggest DECLINES in teenage smoking initiation occurred from 1975 to 1992, a period in which cigarette ad and promotion spending TRIPLED (even factoring out inflation). And the biggest INCREASES in teen smoking and rate of first puff occurred from 1993 to the present, when ad and promotion spending DECLINED sharply." That doesn't mean advertising is a waste: ads can shift which brand is chosen by people already smoking, but this is essentially a fight over which companies have the biggest market share, not a strategy for recruiting large numbers of new customers. Interestingly enough, concerning Joe Camel's impact in particular, the character was introduced in advertisements starting in 1988. Teen smoking DECLINED between 1988 and 1992.

5. But if we make smoking illegal, won't that stop kids, at least for the most part? Again, the evidence doesn't support such a move. Some states expel teens from school, deny drivers' licenses, impose fines and even jail youths. North Carolina imposes some of the most severe penalties. "That a state which grows two-thirds of the nation's tobacco would enact tough laws against youth access shows just how small a threat such laws are to the industry," writes Males. Meanwhile, even as these harsh measures are spreading, a 1999 study by the Massachusetts General Hospital shows that teen smoking is on the increase, perhaps indicating the ineffectiveness of the clampdown, and the counterproductive nature of the smoking-is-for-adults campaign.

6. But aren't teens too young to do the right thing? In 1991, Montana held statewide referenda among junior high and high school students proposing that schools be "tobacco free." They passed, with schools in Bozeman voting 80% in favor. However, in three cities, Billings, Livingston, and Missoula, where city councils had implemented local ordinances to criminalize teen smoking, students were significantly less likely to vote for the referendum than would have been predicted by the smoking rates. "These cities where teen smoking had been criminalized were the only cities where such a pro-smoking trend occurred," writes Males.

The Smoking Gun -- Part II
Yesterday we looked at why the tobacco settlement is a big win for Big Tobacco, why making smoking an "adults only" activity increases its allure to youth, why ads supposedly targeted at youth aren't really the issue, and why criminalizing smoking won't work. But it's vital we solve this health issue: as the export of tobacco shifts into an ever higher gear, 10 million people are slated to die world-wide every year--the equivalent of the number of Holocaust deaths in World War II every year!

1. Just because targeting teens doesn't work doesn't mean we can't have a smoke-free society. This was the explicit goal of Reagan's surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, who targeted smoking in public places and relentlessly used his position as a pulpit from which to warn people of diseases associated with smoking. In one finding, Koop said, smoking is addictive in a manner similar "to drugs like heroin and cocaine." Another effective anti-smoking tool is simple: increased taxation. Higher costs means lower smoking. But that's unlikely: the tobacco settlement stipulates that if new federal taxes are put on tobacco, the amount paid by Big Tobacco as part of the settlement is reduced by a proportionate amount. New taxes mean the states would lose big time.

2. But Koop's goal "has been eclipsed by a less potent and probably counterproductive one: 'we don't want kids to smoke,'" writes Stanton Glantz, author of The Tobacco Papers. Clinton makes the difference clear: "we're not trying to put tobacco sellers out of business," he said. Why the switch to a focus on teens? One answer is tobacco money. Tobacco lobbyists poured millions into the Democratic Party. Philip Morris coughed up nearly half a million just "days before Vice President Al Gore's gutwrenching speech to the Democratic National Convention that his sister's death from smoking-induced cancer in 1984 led him to pour his heart and soul into protecting our children from the dangers of smoking." This is the same guy who, four years after his sister's death, bragged in the 1988 presidential primaries that he had been a tobacco farmer himself, and who profited from growing the killer weed well into the 1990s.

3. Another answer as to why the focus has been narrowed to teens involves the coopting of the anti-smoking movement. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids agrees that the best way to lower smoking is to raise tobacco prices. Yet it championed the very settlement that minimizes this. Tobacco prices will probably rise due to the settlement, but on a one-time basis, and not nearly as much as a stiff tax hike or sustained legal sanctions would have done.

4. One reason for the Campaign's championing the settlement may be where some of the settlement money is likely to go: into the coffers of the Campaign. The settlement is structured so that industry payments are reduced if smoking declines, and raised if smoking increases. So what's the best way to ensure the financial health of the anti-smoking movement: pursue ineffective campaigns against teen smoking that don't really alter smoking rates. As of this writing in November 1999, the Campaign is now lobbying hard to receive money from the settlement, but whether it will get the money remains a question.

These facts from Smoked: Why Joe Camel Is Still Smiling by Mike Males.

Summary of Book from Common Courage Press Web Site

Smoked: Why Joe Camel is Still Smiling

Mike A. Males

So, you thought the states' huge, multi-billion dollar tobacco settlement had dealt big tobacco a near-deadly blow. Think again.

The tobacco industry, Mike Males insists, has pulled off "the biggest con job in the history of the world." And both President Clinton and Vice-President Gore have been smack dab in the middle of it.

Dr. C. Everett Koop, President Reagan's Surgeon General, led the charge for a "smoke-free society by 2000." Tobacco sales and use dropped off dramatically. The industry had been caught off-guard.

Yet by the Clinton administration, tobacco had recovered its balance and had undermined the anti-smoking message from the National Research Council and other groups.

The millions funneled into the national Democratic Party also didn't hurt.

Males writes in his introduction:
"These included nearly half a million that Phillip Morris kicked in to party coffers only days before Vice President Al Gore's gut-wrenching speech to the Democratic National Convention that his sister's death from smoking-induced cancer in 1984 led him to 'pour his heart and soul into protecting our children from the dangers of smoking.' Gore was so broken up that he only bragged about being a tobacco farmer himself in the 1988 presidential primaries, four years after his sister's death, and continued to profit from growing the killer weed well into the 1990s."

Other Democratic top guns implicated by Males include former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and former Texas Governor Ann Richards.

Males also demonstrates how the current push to stop teen smoking is both two-faced and counterproductive.

Two-faced: While recognizing the debilitating effects of smoke on teens, even anti-smoking groups have tacitly put the right of adult smokers to practice their addiction ahead of the health and lives of children suffering in the same smoke-filled rooms with them.

Counterproductive: When smoking is promoted as a sophisticated adult activity forbidden to immature children, many youths view the habit as a rite of passage.

Mike Males also points out the link between smoking and the explosion in hard-drug abuse among baby boomers of age to be parenting older children and teens.

"Nearly all hard-drug abusers ... also smoked cigarettes;" Males states in his introduction. "A 1994 study found cigarette and crack cocaine use so intermixed that it was just as likely that 'crack babies' were really nicotine babies."

This chilling account of the deliberate - and successful - muddling of the war on tobacco is a fascinating read on corporate power and the co-opting of the anti-smoking coalition.

Smoked: Why Joe Camel is Still Smiling. Mike A. Males; Common Courage Press, 1999; ISBN 1-56751-172-4; Paper, 109 pages + references & index.
If you would like to purchase this book, it can be obtained through your local book store ($10.00 list price), from ($8.50) or from Common Courage Press ($7.50).

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