Big Tobacco in the briar patch

June 04, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- And you didn't think it was possible for the tobacco image to sink any lower. Now Big Tobacco is the Evil Empire of a John Grisham novel.

What next? A Stephen King film with a villain named Philip Morris?

It's been that kind of year. With an anti-smoking president in the White House, with company memos leaking all over the media, with states suing for health expenses and smokers hiding in doorways, the tobacco executives will soon be slinking in to work with trench coats over their heads.

The anti-smoking movement is on a roll. But there's one little piece of bad news: The statistics for teen smoking are going up, not down. The Centers for Disease Control tells us that the number of smoking teens has risen from 27.5 percent in 1991 to 34.8 percent in 1995.

Over the past few years, there has been a subtle shift in public-health strategy. Surgeon General Koop's call for a Smoke Free America has veered into a campaign for Smoke Free Kids.

On the surface, this makes sense. Smoking is not an adult custom, as the tobacco companies like to say, it's a childhood addiction. Ninety percent of today's addicts got hooked as kids. If the companies can't hook the customers today, they will be out of business tomorrow, or at least in a few decades.

Where we agree

This is reason enough to limit the access and the ads, the vending machines and the Joe Camels. If there is one thing everyone is able to agree on, it's that ''Kids shouldn't smoke.''

But there is a paradox in this line of persuasion. The more narrowly we concentrate on kids -- the more fervently we insist that cigarettes are not for children -- the more we may be making them the forbidden fruit of adolescence.

Stan Glantz, a cardiology professor, has been offering high-decibel warnings about this to his public-health colleagues.

Talking from the National Tobacco Control Conference in Chicago last week, he said, ''The tobacco industry presents smoking as a way to be grown-up. By emphasizing the kiddie issue, we're just reinforcing the industry's message.''

The youth turf is in fact the tobacco companies' briar patch. They love it there. In mid-May when Philip Morris tried its end-run around Food and Drug Administration proposals on marketing to kids, a spokesman said with a straight face ''the time has come to address the issue of under-age use of tobacco.''

What grown-ups do

This was just the latest in a long line of helpful hints on ''under-age smoking.'' Since 1979, the tobacco folks have recycled whole flights of ''tobacco education messages'' which describe smoking as ''one of the many activities some people choose to do as adults'' such as ''voting, driving a car, drinking alcoholic beverages, marriage, having children.''

There you go. Linking cigarettes with driving, drinking and sex. What a turnoff!

''It's clear that whatever the tobacco industry suggests is 180 degrees wrong,'' says Richard Daynard of the Tobacco Litigation Project. ''They have figured out what sort of pitch will maximize the adolescent rebellion.''

The paradox, he adds, is ''that if you are really concerned about kids you can't just concentrate on kids.''

That doesn't mean that we throw in the towel. It means that we keep the aim of the anti-smoking campaign wide and tall -- grown-up. After all, there is no ''under-age smoking'' because there is no right-age smoking.

The most successful campaigns across the age spectrum have been formulated against second-hand smoke and addiction. Teens in smoky pursuit of independence are going to be most appalled by the message that they're turning their bodies over to the tobacco companies.

Taxing sin

For that matter, raising the tax on cigarettes could do more to curtail teen smoking than prosecuting the grocers who sell to them. And a curb on marketing across the age span is the only way to keep the messages from kids.

The best thing to do for a not-yet smoker is to show the tobacco companies as they are: nicotine deliverymen. The best way to get a smoke-free kid is to get that smoke-free America.

The first peak of the anti-smoking movement came in the 1960s after Surgeon General Luther Terry's original report. Warning labels were slapped on cigarette packs, ads were pulled from TV and tobacco was on the defensive. Then Terry announced that the goal was to deal with the next generation of smokers, children, and the public-health campaign went into remission.

Today at last we're on a winning streak. This time the movement can't be just kids stuff.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/04/96

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