Ads blow smoke rings around teens

I have a confession to make: I like Joe Camel and those cool Camel Red boxes of cigarettes that look like they’re from the 1930s. I also love the Marlboro man, even though I’m not a cowgirl. And you know what? I don’t even smoke.
Apparently, the idea that people can like advertisements and also not do what the ads tell them to do has not gotten through to those who are fighting our national tobacco war.
In the latest round of the Big Tobacco Companies vs. Washington, Big Tobacco threw the first punch last week, backing out of the lawsuit settlement. After peering at a final draft of the agreement, RJR Nabisco’s Steven Goldstone saw it had fattened to nearly $600 billion from the original $365 billion. He answered, “No deal.”
Politicians on the left and right ran around their offices, screaming and cursing. The money they were going to use to fight teen tobacco use had disappeared.
Apparently, each side has now begun a public relations campaign to smear the other. But really, all they have proven is that their efforts to promote public health and save American children from cancer have backfired into a shameful display of greed.
From the beginning, the reasons for attacking tobacco were motivated by money. Though the tobacco companies would not publicly admit it, Americans have known for years that smoking causes lung cancer.
Recent studies show that American tobacco consumption has declined and more people are kicking the habit. However, smoking is increasingly popular among teenagers. In a study released this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta announced that 30 percent more teens smoke today compared to six years ago.
Using these statistics and the leaked news that tobacco companies may have marketed to teenagers in past years, politicians decided tobacco should pay up.
The money supposedly would go toward programs aimed at curbing teen smoking, specifically anti-smoking ads and public health campaigns. The deal would include voluntary restrictions on smoking advertisements that might encourage teenagers to take up the habit.
This idea makes sense, and I generally agree teen smoking is a bad idea (both Republicans and Democrats realized that no one really favors teen smoking). However, I have trouble understanding how billions of dollars will keep teens from smoking.
First, if tobacco companies did market cigarettes and other products to teens, who cares? Even though it’s not the most ethical practice, teens are influenced to smoke by more reasons than billboard ads.
There is no advertising book that says people will blindly follow any media message they receive. In fact, advertising studies show that as people get older, they begin to filter information better and learn to decide whether they accept or reject advertising messages.
Every day, teens are bombarded with advertisements glorifying not only tobacco, but other vices in society. Sex, money and alcohol are abundant. Teenagers are old enough to make choices on their own. Let’s give them credit — no one forced them to inhale.
To concentrate on tobacco advertising ignores the power of images in other media. Smoking television stars, movie stars and athletes are all bad examples. Who’s to say that 16-year-old Johnny smokes because he’s emulating John Travolta or James Dean?
The media is powerful in sending both positive and negative messages to children. But the strength of putting those messages into action is difficult to measure, and frankly, it has never been proven.
A better bet to explain the rise in teen smoking is to look at smoking as a social pressure. I’m sure you know someone who smokes, and chances are that person is often looking for someone to go outside with to have a cigarette. Smokers love company. And when teenagers are experimenting with trying new things that their parents don’t approve, it makes sense they wouldn’t want to smoke alone.
Researchers seem baffled by the statistics, but to me they make sense. Smoking among adults has gone down, while teen smoking has risen. This can be explained in one word: rebellion.
After I interviewed teen smokers last spring, my editors weren’t particularly impressed with what they had to say. While lighting up, three high school students told me they smoked because they enjoyed it, their friends smoked and their parents didn’t approve.
This isn’t news, but it speaks of a generation of young people who want their own identity. Yeah, smoking is bad for you, but who cares? We live in a world that’s already dictating teen lifestyles, from safe sex to where they can skateboard. So why blame Joe Camel?
Teens are smart enough to know the risks of life. They’ve seen media images, but they also know life is dangerous. Smoking has caused a lot of deaths and other related health problems, much of which are to blame on the tobacco industry’s bad practices. But luckily, today’s teens have better information about the risks than teens of 50 years ago. This allows them to make more informed decisions than their parents.
The tobacco lawsuit — the $365 billion or $600 billion — is not about teen smoking. It’s done little but show how out-of-touch and greedy lawmakers can be when given the opportunity to reach into an industry with deep pockets and low public approval.
And perhaps we’ve learned another lesson that we can teach to our children — avarice is just as abominable as becoming addicted to nicotine.
Sara Goo’s column appears every Tuesday. She welcomes comments by e-mail to [email protected].