Opportunity Up in Smoke

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Adults, particularly those holding or aspiring to political office, are fond of lamenting the purported shortcomings of today’s young people. Solutions to whatever adults think ails youth range from a willingness to “try anything” (usually punitive) to exasperation that “nothing works.”

The chicanery of these pillars of conventional youth policy thinking is illustrated by the recent history of efforts to end teen tobacco use. A new report on teen smoking from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) brings refreshing news. Youth smoking is down nearly 8 percent in a single year. Only 28.5 percent of high-schoolers now elect to begin slow-motion suicide. That’s a drop from 36.4 percent five years ago – but still higher than the rate of 27.5 percent reached in 1991.

Part of the decline can be attributed to the 70 percent hike in tobacco taxes between December 1997 and May 2001. Credit also goes to the national anti-tobacco crusade led by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Legacy Foundation and the American Medical Association’s Smokeless States initiative, among others. Additionally, many state-funded education programs, such as those in Massachusetts and California, in cooperation with local schools and youth groups, appear to be turning this generation away from the entreaties on which big tobacco spends $22.5 million per day. In short, when it comes to smoking, “something works.”

In 1998, when the tobacco industry agreed to pay 46 states $246 billion to settle lawsuits, anti-tobacco experts (including those at the CDC), urged that 20 percent to 25 percent of the money be spent on prevention efforts, aimed mostly at young people. That sensible advice was ignored by most state legislatures. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, just $761 million of the $7.6 billion in tobacco company payments – or 10 percent – has found its way into demand-reduction efforts.

Only five states – Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Minnesota and Arizona – fund anti-tobacco programs at the modest level recommended by the CDC. Three states – Michigan, Missouri and Tennessee, plus the District of Columbia – spend not one cent of the income from tobacco companies to reduce smoking.

Florida, once a national pace-setter whose efforts slashed middle-school smoking by 47 percent in three years, has cut its spending since 1998 from $70 million to $30 million. The result has been no additional progress over the past year in further reducing smoking among Florida’s early adolescents. Lost was the opportunity to drive down smoking by white and Hispanic teens to the laudatory low level of 14.7 percent of their black peers.

Were it not for the short sightedness of most state legislatures and the continued non-compliance by cigarette companies in not taking, as the consent decree says, “any action, directly or indirectly, to target youth” as new smokers, then surely teen smoking rates would have plunged to the lowest level ever recorded.

So much for politicians’ purported willingness to “try anything.” What is lacking in this country is the political will, especially in state legislatures, to snuff out tobacco use among children once and for all.