Outside editorial: Realism and teen smoking

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

If you go to the website of the Surgeon General of the United States (surgeongeneral.gov), you can see a new public service announcement featuring teenagers in a cemetery, talking about the harmful consequences of smoking. It resembles hundreds of other spots we’ve all seen, and it’s likely to have the same effect — not much.

The ad accompanies a new report which laments the stalled progress against adolescent tobacco use. After a sharp drop in youth smoking between 1997 and 2004, the decline has slowed, and today, 18.7 percent of high school seniors use cigarettes.

That’s a higher rate than anyone would like, but some humility is in order.

The report puts the blame on tobacco companies for spending nearly $10 billion a year on advertising and promotion. But it’s easy to exaggerate how much impact that spending has on kids.

After all, as the surgeon general acknowledges, “the Master Settlement Agreement with the tobacco companies in 1998 resulted in the elimination of billboard and transit advertising, eliminated print advertising that directly targeted underage youth, and limited the use of brand advertising.”

Most marketing funds are now spent on price discounts, and the report argues that these are especially enticing to kids because they are more price-sensitive. But keep in mind that no one under age 18 is legally allowed to purchase tobacco products anymore. And money-saving promotions are a reasonable tool for capturing market share among adult smokers.

If you think advertising is the culprit, keep in mind that cigarettes are now less popular with high school seniors than marijuana — and pot doesn’t have a $10 billion marketing budget. It’s tempting to blame Big Tobacco for corrupting kids. But that view endows ad departments with far more power than they actually have.

So what can be done about teen smoking? It’s wise to accept the limits of anti-tobacco efforts. The administration’s dream “to make the next generation tobacco-free” is unrealistic, given that some kids will always want to take needless risks.

But some useful steps could be taken. One is tightening enforcement of laws against selling tobacco to minors — with prosecution of adults who buy smokes for high school students.

Another is raising taxes on these products. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says research suggests that a 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes cuts kids’ smoking by about 7 percent.

Making cigarettes less affordable and less accessible will help to reduce the amount of teen smoking. But more preaching? A lot of kids are really good at tuning that out.

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