Why the war on smoking backfires with teens

May 02, 2000|By Susan Reimer

AN ENORMOUS public health campaign is being waged to prevent teens from smoking.

Beginning in grade school, children are indoctrinated against the habit, threatened with death by suffocation and terrorized with grimy pictures of smoking damage to the lungs.

Taxes are raised to put cigarettes beyond the reach of the average allowance, and the law against their sale to minors is enforced more sternly. We have restricted advertising by tobacco companies and regulated its content. And we counter that advertising with slick commercials aimed taking the coolness out of smoking.

What is the result of these high-pitched and high- powered efforts?

Since 1988, the number of teen smokers has risen 73 percent. As a matter of fact, young teens and college students are the only groups where the incidence of smoking is higher over that time. Adults are the ones who are quitting.

It is hard to imagine a public health campaign that could be more of a failure. How can we explain the mysterious hold smoking has on young people? And, more important, how do we break it?

Malcolm Gladwell, a penetrating and eclectic essayist for the New Yorker who is not so far from his teen-age years himself, puts forth a fascinating theory in his book, "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference."

The book is not about smoking, but smoking is one of the behaviors Gladwell reinterprets through his theory that ideas and attitudes can be spread by contagion, just like diseases.

Such an epidemic is a function of the people who spread it (whom he calls the "salesmen"), the message itself (what he calls its "stickiness") and the environment in which the message appears (in the case of smoking, adolescence).

The anti-smoking campaign, Gladwell writes, has always run on the assumption that smoking is governed by the rules of the marketplace: If you cast smoking as dangerous and unpleasant and make cigarettes harder to buy, the demand among teens will evaporate.

But that is not how smoking works, Gladwell writes. It is driven, he says, "by the mysterious social rules and rituals that govern teen decision-making."

Smoking itself was never cool, Gladwell says. It is the smokers who are cool.

Teen smokers are the "salesmen," and Gladwell reports that they are usually defiant, sexually precocious, honest, impulsive, indifferent to the opinions of others, sensation-seeking -- in other words, just the kinds of kids other teens are drawn to.

For teens, smoking is the ultimate expression of rebelliousness and risk-taking. Teens don't smoke because they want to be seen as more grown-up or more like grown-ups. It is precisely because grown-ups are forbidding them to smoke that they take it up.

Teens smoke not because the tobacco industry has made smoking seem glamorous and sophisticated, but because other teens have made it seem glamorous and sophisticated.

"They aren't cool because they smoke," Gladwell writes. "They smoke because they are cool."

The question is whether teens will continue to smoke after that first behind-the-school experience.

If their initiation has been unpleasant for some reason, it is unlikely that they will continue to smoke. Habitual smokers often report that their first experience with a cigarette was very pleasurable and their memory of it very positive.

Even if teens continue to smoke, Gladwell reports, it appears to take about three years (say, between the ages of 15 and 18?) before they are regular smokers and five to seven years more before they are addicted to nicotine.

So if your teen begins to smoke occasionally, all is not lost. You still have time to get him to quit.

Gladwell offers evidence that there is a physiological "tipping point" for smokers, different for different people, where nicotine is no longer just a pleasureable experience but a physical craving.

The answer, he says, is to force the tobacco companies to reduce the level of nicotine in cigarettes so that even if your teen is smoking 30 cigarettes a day, the amount of nicotine he is receiving will not be enough to hook him "before he has the good sense to give up a bad habit."

"The habit will no longer be sticky," Gladwell writes.

Teen smoking is more about being a teen-ager than it is about smoking, he writes. "[It is] about sharing the emotional experiences and rituals of adolescence, which are impenetrable and irrational to outsiders."

It is Gladwell's thesis that change does not always require huge, expensive programs. Sometimes just a little push in just the right place, at just the right time, is enough. That is the tipping point.

In the case of smoking, it might be that all that is necessary is a tweaking of the recipe for cigarettes so that there is still enough nicotine for the taste and the buzz, but not enough to be addictive.

We are never going to convince teens not to smoke. It is precisely because we disapprove that they begin.

Instead of fighting this experimentation, which is part and parcel of the teen-age experience, we should just try to make sure smoking doesn't, in Gladwell's term, stick.

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