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Over the years, I have developed a grudging and entirely perverse admiration for the tobacco industry. The corporate heads, the lawyers, the lobbyists could teach Outward Bound a thing or two about survival skills.

Every time the cigarette pushers are cornered into an hypocrisy, terminally trapped in an inconsistency, forced up against a scientific wall, they get loose.

But their current ploy has a can-you-top-this quality. This week, the Tobacco Institute announced in solid-citizen tones that it is mounting a campaign to discourage smoking among children.

With a straight face and a press conference, the tobacco people said they will support a national legal smoking age of 18. They will favor laws requiring supervision for cigarette-vending machines near minors. They will limit samples and billboard ads near schools. And they will offer aids to parents to help their children resist "peer-group pressure" to smoke.

Smoking Companies Against Smoking? It's enough to make you suffer headaches and delusions and other symptoms of side-stream smoke.

Every year 500,000 adult Americans die from smoking. Another 1.5 million quit in some state of enlightenment or ill health. The only source of new customers are children. Nearly all adults start when they are minors. If you get past 20 without getting hooked, you're virtually home free.

Given these facts, their current campaign against smoking by children could be (1) a sudden attack of public virtue, (2) corporate suicide or (3) baloney. Circle 3 on your answer sheet.

The effort to improve their corporate image -- to look like that oxymoron, responsible tobacco companies -- is also a savvy attempt at freezing the smoking status quo.

A national minimum smoking age of 18? All but six states have that today. The pressure now is to enforce that law. The further goal is to raise the smoking age to the drinking age -- in most places 21.

"Supervised" vending machines? The real pressure is to ban vending machines. Indeed, New York passed such a law that goes into effect in a year.

No billboards near playgrounds and schools? This pales beside the movement to ban billboards altogether.

But the most insidious of these do-good proposals is the one that promises help combating the "peer-group pressure" to smoke. Whence cometh this pressure?

As Joe Tye, the head of Stop Teen-age Addiction to Tobacco, says: "They make it sound like peer-group pressure is something that permeates the air of the corridor in every junior high school." But it's created by the very same tobacco industry.

Some $3 billion a year is spent on ads and promotions. A good portion of that money is directed at the young, either through product placements in movies from "Roger Rabbit" to "Superman," through sponsored events, or through the less-than-subtle creation of the Camel Smooth cartoon character.

When the cigarette companies offer T-shirts, iridescent sunglasses and compact discs with their smokes, they aren't aiming at the senior-citizens market.

The tobacco people didn't offer a single reason for their deep concern. Why shouldn't kids smoke? "Are they afraid," as health advocate Dr. Elizabeth Whelan suggests sarcastically, "that the children will burn their little fingers?"

In all of its years on the American public stage, the Tobacco Institute has never admitted the product is addictive or that it causes cancer, heart disease, respiratory illness. It is merely a habit for adults, sort of like lipstick.

Again, the industry is trying to distract us. This time they are using smoke and minors. The vaunted campaign is really an effort to buy time, to push away the moral responsibility of selling to adults as well as children.

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