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5 minute read
Elizabeth Gleick

Brie Kane was only seven when she tried her first cigarette, really just a stale butt she found in her mother’s ashtray. It made her sick, but not sick enough to stay away forever. Five years later, she and a friend began secretly sharing Marlboros in the backyard of Brie’s home in Olney, Maryland. Now that she is 18, Brie sometimes goes through a pack of Misty Lights a day. Most of the people she knows–her sister, her parents, many of her school friends–are smokers too. “It’s just something to do,” she explains. Thrusting her hands into the pockets of her faded cutoffs, she repeats the battle cry of smokers everywhere: “If I really wanted to quit, I’m sure I probably could.”

Much more certain, in fact, is a set of sobering numbers: 3,000 teenagers begin smoking every day, and of those, nearly 1,000 will die prematurely, according to the Surgeon General. Brie Kane’s nonchalance aside, 72% of adolescent daily smokers who think they won’t still be smoking every day five years from now are wrong. And while the number of adult smokers is steadily declining, teen smoking has increased. Among eighth graders, for example, the percentage of those who have smoked in the past 30 days increased 30% between 1991 and 1994. Findings such as these, combined with popular politics–polls show that even most adult smokers do not want their kids to pick up the habit–led President Clinton last week to instruct the Food and Drug Administration to draft a series of aggressive regulations to keep tobacco away from teenagers. His plan includes banning cigarette vending machines, outlawing tobacco billboards within 1,000 feet of playgrounds and schoolyards, restricting magazine advertising, requiring the tobacco industry to pour $150 million into a public education campaign and cracking down on underage cigarette sales.

Clinton’s move cuts straight to the heart of the tobacco business. While the cigarette companies make some concessions to political pressure–last week, for instance, Philip Morris added the phrase UNDERAGE SALE PROHIBITED to its packages–the fact remains that they have a business motivation to replace the 2 million smokers who quit or die each year. The best way to capture new ones is to get them when they are young: of all adult smokers, 90% started smoking before the age of 20. This is why much of the tobacco industry’s $6 billion worth of advertising contains an undeniable appeal to youth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after the Joe Camel advertising campaign, which depicts a camel wearing sunglasses and driving a fancy car, began in 1988, the proportion of teenage smokers who prefer Camels more than tripled. Said Clinton last week: “Does anyone seriously doubt that a lot of this advertisement is designed to reach children?”

While cigarettes hold an intrinsic appeal for kids convinced they are immortal and desperate to be cool, grass-roots antismoking campaigns across the U.S. have begun to show some promise. African-American groups have focused attention on the way certain ads and cigarette brands are aimed specifically at blacks and have enlisted churches, parents and school groups to combat underage smoking. The success rate has been phenomenal: according to 1993 figures, only 4.4% of black teens smoke, compared with nearly 23% of white teens.

Clinton’s plan, by focusing on both law enforcement and advertising, follows successful steps already being taken by local governments. In San Jose, California, an antismoking group talked the city into outlawing cigarette vending machines in all public places and sanctioning sting operations against vendors selling to kids; sales to minors dropped an estimated 60% over three years. In Seattle similar measures reduced overall sales of cigarettes to minors 45% in a three-year period.

In Massachusetts state officials hoping to counter the effect of marketing ploys like “Marlboro Miles,” in which consumers send collected labels in to get such popular items as CD players and hooded sweatshirts, have set up competing incentives. In April, Massachusetts tobacco-control officials persuaded 200 retailers, including McDonald’s and Footlocker stores, to give discounts to teens who take a smoke-free pledge. So far, more than 25,000 children have signed up. The state has also spent $14 million on antismoking ads. Since 1994, cigarette sales to teens in the state have dropped some 40%. Said Dr. Lonnie Bristow, president of the American Medical Association: “If you hamper their ability to market effectively to children, you’ve really put your hand on [the tobacco companies’] jugular.”

Already feeling the government’s hands around their throat, tobacco-industry leaders took immediate steps to thwart Clinton’s plan. The five largest cigarette manufacturers filed a lawsuit claiming that the FDA has no jurisdiction over cigarettes and that the advertising restrictions violate their First Amendment rights. But Clinton has tried to entice the tobacco companies into backing a law that would directly impose the restrictions he seeks. California Democrat Henry Waxman, the leading antismoking figure in the House, predicts that the new Republican majority might pass these reforms rather than let their nemesis, the FDA, regulate the industry.

The greatest fear of the tobacco industry, of course, is that the new moves on teen smoking are just opening skirmishes in an assault on smoking by adults as well. Though Clinton denies this, the Administration is being lobbied to go even further. Officials at the A.M.A. would like to see a total ban on tobacco advertising. At the same time, they want politicians to refuse money from tobacco PACS and believe that medical schools and other research organizations should refuse all funding by tobacco companies. “No right-thinking individual can ignore the evidence” about nicotine addiction, an A.M.A. report proclaimed last month. “We should all be outraged, and we should force the removal of this scourge from our nation.” But the politics of tobacco have never been as clear-cut as the medical evidence.

–Reported by J.F.O. McAllister/Washington and Jenifer Mattos/New York

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