These kill kids, too

Susan P. Leviton

August 19, 1991|By Susan P. Leviton

EVERY DAY in the United States, about 5,000 children begin smoking. An astonishing 60 percent of all smokers begin by the age of 14, with 90 percent starting before the age of 20. In fact, even as adults continue to quit smoking, there are still more than 3 million American children who consume 947 million packs of cigarettes and 26 million containers of smokeless tobacco yearly.

As adults read about the dangers of smoking and see their friends and relatives die from diseases related to smoking, more and more of them are giving up the weed. In desperation, the tobacco industry has been pursuing a marketing policy aimed at recruiting and enticing youthful smokers to begin smoking -- and become addicted.

The message is very seductive. It conveys to children that if they want to be successful, glamorous and popular with the opposite sex, they have to smoke. It is obvious whom the cigarette folks are after. Ask yourself: When was the last time you saw an adult with a poster of Camel Joe on his or her bedroom wall? It's ads like those featuring the Marlboro man that bring home to young boys the macho image of smoking. Young girls are drawn by the glamour of the Virginia Slims theme: "You've come a long way, baby."

Indeed, we have come a long way. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in this country. Maryland, ranking fourth among the states in per-capita cigarette consumption, had the highest cancer death rate in the nation last year. An astounding 42 percent of the cancer deaths in Maryland were related to tobacco use, alcohol use or both.

The tobacco industry's party line is that its advertising is not aimed at luring children to smoke. These ads, the industry says, are merely directed at convincing adult smokers to switch brands. Documents recently released in a trial challenging the constitutionality of Canada's Tobacco Products Control Act of 1988 show the utter falsity of the argument. For example, the Imperial Tobacco Ltd.'s 1971 marketing plan for the Matinee brand stated bluntly: "Young smokers represent the major opportunity group for the cigarette industry." And why not? Half of the industry's profits -- a whopping $3.35 billion annually -- is derived from sales to persons who become addicted to nicotine as children.

You wouldn't know from observing the huge number of youngsters who are smoking that selling cigarettes to children is actually illegal in 43 states, including Maryland. But no one takes the law seriously. Maryland needs to translate its righteous rhetoric into aggressive action. Maryland needs to enforce the law!

Punishing kids for smoking would likely be a waste of time and precious resources. The juvenile system, flooded with drugs and plagued by serious felonies, is already taxed beyond any reasonable point. Instead, Maryland should focus its efforts where they can be most effective -- on the retailers who irresponsibly sell these products to our children. We should make the financial price for retailers who sell cigarettes to minors too high to pay. Maryland needs to send a clear and unequivocal message: If you sell, you will get caught; and when you get caught, you will be held accountable for committing an illegal act, selling cigarettes to minors, and you will be heavily fined.

Yet, cracking down on retailers will not completely prevent children from acquiring cigarettes. Laws against selling liquor to minors did not prevent a 15-year-old from drinking himself to death in Ocean City recently. But booze isn't sold in vending machines. The larger problem is that kids can purchase cigarettes with ease.

The Maryland legislature made a good start during its last session by increasing taxes on cigarettes. Data show that higher taxes on cigarettes do deter young people from smoking. But more, much more, is needed to truly win this war.

Kids think they're invincible -- they'll never die, they won't get addicted. It is up to us -- every adult Maryland citizen -- to urge our elected officials to really get serious and make our children's health a priority. We need tougher laws and strict enforcement. FTC We need laws that restrict billboard advertising of cigarettes, that limit children's access to vending machines, that prohibit distribution of free cigarette samples and that mandate education on the dangers of cigarette smoking.

And we absolutely need stricter enforcement: sting operations that use teen-agers to catch retailers who flagrantly sell cigarettes to minors, stiff fines and restricting or revoking of retail licenses to sell cigarettes. This enforcement will cost money, but the money will be retrieved several times over in reduced health costs. Almost 35 percent of health-care costs in this country are attributable to cigarette smoking. Each of us bears a portion of that burden, through our health insurance, our taxes and in reduced productivity.

We can't afford not to be more aggressive about children's smoking. Kids are our future and our most precious natural resource. And if all this seems like a bit much, stop for a moment and consider: Did your child begin smoking cigarettes today?

Susan P. Leviton teaches at the University of Maryland School of A Law and is president of Advocates for Children and Youth.

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