New laws won’t burn teen smoking

Will this be remembered as the year smoking began its irrevocable descent into the dustbin of long-forgotten social customs, consigned with spittoons and chamber pots among once-acceptable, but now-disgusting practices?
An extinguishing tide seems to be running against the tobacco industry. California has banned smoking in restaurants. Minnesota has turned up documents damning tobacco industry promises and practices. Florida has begun using tobacco’s own money for anti-smoking campaigns. The federal government is pondering legislation that will radically change the way tobacco companies do business, and is also implementing economic penalties meant to ensure that smoking among teenagers declines.
It’s the Marlboro Man’s last ride. Virginia Slims isn’t going any further. Even Joe Camel can’t get over this hump. Or can he? Even if new regulations make the alluring symbols of tobacco disappear, their spirits remain, especially among the underage consumers who compose more than three-quarters of all new smokers annually. And while attorneys and legislators fight for change in Minnesota and in Washington, the debates grow more convoluted and goals get bolder, creating delusions that laws and penalties can bring about a smoke-free society.
That’s not going to happen. The social factors behind smoking, especially youth smoking, are so complex that any resolution with big tobacco will, ultimately, have little impact on the smoking habits of Americans, especially among the minors at whom the legislation is aimed.
Working toward a smoke-free society is a good goal, for a few simple reasons:
1. Smoking is really bad. Pretty much everyone, including smokers, can agree on this. Study after study has shown links between smoking and cancer, emphysema, birth defects and all sorts of other stuff, not to mention tooth stains, bad breath and stale-smelling clothes. When you get right down to it, smoking doesn’t make sense. That doesn’t mean people don’t have a right to smoke. It doesn’t even mean that people don’t have good reasons to smoke, however asinine those reasons might seem to non-smokers. It just means that, all in all, the world would be a better place if people didn’t smoke.
2. Smoking by minors is really, really bad. The younger people start, the more messed up their bodies become. Also, the younger people are, the less likely it is that their decisions to smoke were made with sufficient consideration of its risks.
Often, youthful decisions aren’t a big deal. As a teenager in the 1980s, I wore a lot of bright pink clothing, as did my friends. A regrettable decision, but aside from a few photographs, one that left no lasting trauma. Unfortunately, smoking as a fashion choice — the “all my friends smoke” motive — has more lasting effects. I also smoked in the 1980s, though I haven’t had a cigarette since last July (July 16th, to be exact). It was a Kamel Red, and the air was cool and crisp. Smokers know exactly what I’m talking about. I still want one every once in a while, and that bothers me. It also bothers me that I lost my ability to run long distances about the time I doubled my cigarette intake, and only recently have I been able to breathe as well as I could in high school.
Of course, if you had told me when I was 16 that I’d change my mind about smoking, I would have rolled my eyes. But I did change my mind, and thanks to my body’s long(ing) memory of nicotine, I get to reconsider my decision every day.
For these and other reasons, I turn to reason number three, which I also think is fairly non-controversial: The tobacco industry should be bled for everything it’s worth. If nothing else, it should be economically crippled just for insulting people’s intelligence. The Minnesota suit has uncovered thousands of documents detailing big tobacco’s marketing efforts toward children as young as five years old.
Company response? An “anomaly,” says James Morgan, a former CEO of Philip Morris. Right. And Watergate was an isolated break-in.
But what can you expect from an industry whose executives are incredibly less knowledgeable than their own customers? According to Geoffrey Bible, Philip Morris’s current CEO, cigarette smoking poses no proven health risks. “I don’t believe my product does that,” he says. Come on, guys. Every pre-teen you hook has already seen enough public service announcements and classroom videos to know that smoking is addictive and does bad things. They just don’t care.
And that’s what concerns legislators. Playing fast and loose with one’s life is semi-acceptable in the United States, if you’re a consenting adult. But one is not a consenting adult until the age of 18. And when more 14-year-olds recognize Joe Camel than Ronald MacDonald, people who are concerned with a child’s right to eat a high-cholesterol, low-nutrition hamburger in clean air get a little queasy. Marketing to minors seems to be hitting below the belt, especially for a product designed to ensure that physical dependency sets in by the time people change their minds about the product.
Thus the obsession with cutting teenage smoking. Last summer’s $368.5 billion settlement between 40 state attorneys general and the tobacco industry, along with U.S. Sen. John McCain’s bill proposed Monday, increase tobacco company penalties if goals to reduce underage smoking aren’t met. Stiffer taxes on cigarettes — $1.50 per pack in the McCain bill — are meant to deter purchases among younger buyers.
Florida’s $65 million, two-year anti-smoking campaign, which was funded through its own tobacco settlement, began this week. Government officials are especially excited by the Florida campaign, which features creative ads meant to show kids just how disgusting smoking really is. A radio ad, for example, details two teenagers who encounter a flatulent cow. One teenager compares the cow’s gas to the smoke from his friend’s cigarette.
The power of advertising has become a major theme in the tobacco debates. Legislators hope Florida’s campaign will show that advertising will fight advertising, driving down smoking rates. But as much as some people would like to demonize Joe Camel, eliminating the cool shades alone won’t be enough to cut youth smoking. It’s not just Joe vs. the farting cow; it’s Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and a popular culture that’s glamorized cigarettes against after-school specials. It’s the yuppie humidor craze of recent years against C. Everett Koop.
Advertising limits for tobacco products, and anti-smoking counter-advertising, won’t cause significant declines in underage smoking.
Neither will price hikes. The McCain bill is projecting a 60 percent decrease in teen smoking as a result of the buck-and-a-half increase. A study done at Cornell estimates that such an increase would decrease the number of teen smokers by only 13.5 percent. If price was the major factor behind cigarette purchasing decisions, Marlboro wouldn’t be the leading brand among people ages 14-24. The average teenager goes to one movie a week, at an average price of eight dollars — is a buck-fifty increase going to make any difference? Also, how many underage smokers go to the corner drug store to buy smokes? It’s illegal and it hasn’t done any good. Tax increases won’t either.
Finally, there is the inalienable right of every adolescent to do stupid things. Everybody knows smoking is bad, and that’s the point. Bad things inspire curiosity, especially if the bad thing doesn’t look all that bad at first. A friend smokes, then another friend. Pretty soon another social activity has arisen, with consequences that won’t be seen for years. If Washington bans friends, then we might see some progress. Otherwise, all the regulations in the world aren’t going to cut underage smoking by much. It might even make it more attractive.
Despite the increased militancy of lawyers and legislators, the teenagers of the 21st century will undoubtedly have their share of smokes.
Anything different would take more social engineering than any bill or settlement can provide. That’s not to say that efforts aren’t worthwhile: After all, smoking is really bad; underage smoking is really, really bad; and the tobacco industry should be bled dry.
But even though the tide’s strong, it’s going to take more than regulations to cut down on the number of smokers. It’s going to take behavioral changes among everyone, not just among the underage smokers targeted by legislation, to create a smoke-free society. Until then, Joe’s spirit will live on, long after the great debates of ’98 have disappeared.

— Alan Bjerga’s column appears Wednesday’s in the Daily. He can be contacted at [email protected]