Volume 77, Number 3 - January 2 - 8, 2008
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Talking Point

Youth and cigarettes; Maybe TRUTH should butt out

By Kristen V. Brown

All of us in my generation grew up knowing that smoking was bad for us. I watched my mother and grandmother devour hundreds, maybe thousands, of peppermints for years, trying to fend off a nicotine fit with a sweet tooth. My father still “quits” smoking about every six weeks.

When I was 9, I went to the hospital every day after school to visit my ailing grandfather, who was recovering from the removal of one lung and the effects of decades of smoking.

I went to D.A.R.E. I watched Rachel Leigh Cook smash a frying pan around in those commercials meant to encourage me to stay away from drugs. I even once put a carton of my dad’s cigarettes through the wash in hopes of curbing his smoking habit. No luck.

I know it’s bad, dangerous, foolish. But when someone offered me my first cigarette at age 14, everything I knew about smoking meant zip. Zero. Nada. Of course I was going to try it.

We would like to think that teen smoking is on the decline, but the fact remains that today 90 percent of smokers still start before they reach the age of 21. According to the American Lung Association, 4,000 Americans under the age of 18 start smoking every day.

Statistics tell us smoking has been steadily declining among teens. Steadily, but barely. Maybe a few less smoke than in the generation before us. But considering that I can count my nonsmoking friends on one hand, I would say the millions of dollars we feed into antismoking campaigns could be going completely to waste.

After several states sued Big Tobacco in 1998, and until 2003, America’s four top tobacco companies forked over $250 million a year to the American Legacy Foundation, an organization created to help curb teen smoking. According to the foundation, thus far it has received a total of $1.67 billion for its advertising and public education campaigns. Yet thousands of new teen smokers reportedly still light up every day. So what is that money actually buying?  

Truth be told, the information put out there by over-the-top nonsmoking campaigns just seems too hard to buy at face value. The TRUTH ads come across more like science fiction — one shows a pile of “dead” bodies outside of corporate buildings that presumably represent the tobacco industry.

Some of the ads take the Michael Moore approach, as in their campaign stating: “Tobacco gives black males 50 percent more lung cancer than white males,” rather than “Black males are 50 percent more likely to get lung cancer than white males.” Subtle distinction, but is it just me, or does the TRUTH version seem to imply that killer tobacco is racist, too?

All this melodrama leads me to just ignore the message altogether. Why don’t they just tell us straight how bad smoking is for us, instead of trying to scare us with these mini-horror scenarios?

The ads are patronizing, and they don’t seem very effective. A study this year by Assistant Professor Hye-Jin Paek at the University of Georgia and Professor Albert Gunther at the University of Wisconsin concluded that antismoking ads inspire curiosity about cigarettes, and that children exposed to them are more likely to start smoking.

To many of us, smoking is cool. It’s defiant, dangerous — just what young people look for.

I smoked my first cigarette when I was 14. I hated it. But when I was 19, I bought a pack of Marlboro Menthol Lights. I still don’t especially enjoy them, but like many others my age, I’ll accept one when offered, and occasionally I get the urge to buy myself a pack.

I don’t smoke a lot, and I don’t smoke every day. I don’t think I have a habit. But many my age do. Cigarette smoking does cause cancer. It also leads to emphysema and heart disease. The evidence is overwhelming.

I watched these affects firsthand. My grandfather spent two years in a hospital after loosing a lung. He smoked his last cigar on his way to surgery, certain he was going to die. My great-aunt died of lung cancer when I was 7. My dad struggles with his habit every day of his life.

We know the consequences and we still smoke. Ten years of multimillion-dollar ad campaigns haven’t changed that.

Maybe it’s time for a better strategy. In the meantime, it couldn’t hurt to start funneling some of that ad money where it might do some real good, like providing health insurance for all of us who are going to get cancer. 

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