What kills more people each year than AIDS, illegal drugs, car accidents, alcohol, homicides, suicides, and fires combined? With an annual death toll of more than 400,000, cigarette smoking is the number-one preventable cause of death and disease in the United States.
Of the 3,000 teens a day who become new smokers, 1,000 will die from a tobacco-related disease. Now new laws seek to stamp out teen smoking.
Hook ‘Em While They’re Young
Eighty-two percent of all adults who have ever smoked started before age 18. In 1994, almost 19 percent of eighth graders already were smoking. By 12th grade, 31 percent–almost one in three–were smokers.
These statistics are no accident. Despite a ban on TV and radio advertising, tobacco companies spend $6.2 billion each year on advertising and market promotion. While all tobacco companies now claim they don’t want kids to smoke, their ads clearly appeal to youth.
“I wouldn’t smoke just because of some ad,” says Beth, echoing feelings of many teens. But their spending habits say otherwise. At least 85 percent of teen smokers surveyed in 1993 purchased Marlboro, Camel, or Newport–the three brands that led the industry in advertising spending that year.
An Addictive Drug
Despite the good times portrayed in ads, seven out of 10 teen smokers regret ever having started. They’ve tried to quit smoking at least once and failed.
“It’s time that kids start looking at nicotine as a drug that is as powerfully addictive as heroin or cocaine,” says Mitch Zeller, special assistant at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Why is nicotine so powerfully addictive? Less than 12 seconds after a smoker takes a, drag, nicotine reaches the brain. There it affects the body’s stress response systems, influencing the smoker’s behavior and reinforcing the need to smoke.
Despite public statements to the contrary, internal documents show tobacco companies fully appreciate nicotine’s addictive properties. In 1963, the vice president and general counsel of Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corporation wrote, “We are, then, in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug effective in the release of stress mechanisms.”
While tobacco companies say they include nicotine in cigarettes to improve taste and flavor, there’s little corporate research on tiers point. In contrast, cigarette company documents show they conducted extensive research on nicotine’s drug properties. Cigarettes were purposely designed to enhance nicotine delivery.
Nicotine is the addictive hook in cigarettes, but it’s not the only health problem. At least 40 ingredients in cigarettes are known or suspected of causing cancer.
Smoking is directly associated with 90 percent of all lung cancer cases. Cigarette smoking also causes heart disease, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema. Mothers who smoke deliver lower birth weight children. And smokeless tobacco is linked with oral cancers, tooth abrasion, and gum disease.
A Call for action
On August 10, 1995, President Clinton directed the FDA to adopt rules to stop sales and marketing of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco to minors. “We need to act, and we must act now, before another generation of Americans is condemned to fight a difficult and grueling personal battle with an addiction that will cost millions of them their lives,” he announced.
The FDA had already worked on the issue for a year and a half. The next day it proposed rules attacking teen smoking on three fronts: access, advertising, and education.
The new rules would require vendors to examine proof of age before selling cigarettes to any young person. “Kiddie” packs with fewer than 20 cigarettes would be outlawed. Vending machines would be banned.
Tobacco billboards would not be allowed near schools and playgrounds. Images like Joe Camel could not appear on billboards or in magazines that reach large numbers of children and teens. Sporting events could not be sponsored by brand name. Giveaways and other marketing gimmicks would be forbidden.
Finally, the tobacco industry would pay $150 million annually for an educational campaign including anti-smoking ads.
Tobacco companies and advertisers immediately sued the FDA. The agency responded by asking the judge to dismiss the lawsuits, because federal courts don’t make speculative rulings before a case is “ripe” or final. In this case, the FDA won’t issue final rules until it finishes reviewing comments from the public. That review process is underway now.
Meanwhile, the FDA’s Mitch Zeller encourages teens not to use cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. “There is no more significant public health issue facing this country than tobacco use,” says Zeller. “The risks are great, and the stakes are high.”