Boston — Teen-agers see healthy young people engaged in sports in slick cigarette ads splashed throughout the magazines they read. At concerts and sports events, they're greeted by the logos of sponsoring tobacco companies as well as announcements of brand names. As they enter sports arenas and state fairs, free cigarette samples are pressed on them. Despite denials by the tobacco industry, there are strong indications that it is aggressively pursuing the teen market. Health officials say that's because the industry must replenish the stock of smokers it loses to death and quitting.
Smoking causes 350,000 premature deaths a year, according to the United States Public Health Service. Since the surgeon general's report on the health hazards of smoking in 1964, the percentage of smokers in the US population has dropped. And 1.5 million people quit every year.
But as many as 2 million teen-agers continue to smoke. While only 10 percent of teens as a whole smoke, almost a third of older teens do. And bucking a longterm trend, older teen girls are now smoking more than older teen boys.
Some health officials and politicians are calling for a ban on cigarette advertising and promotion. The House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment is holding hearings today on a bill by Rep. Michael Synar (D) of Oklahoma that would ban the advertising of tobacco products in newspapers and magazines, on billboards, and as part of sales displays, as well as its promotion.
The Tobacco Institute, a trade association for the industry, will testify against the ban. It is expected to say that its advertising is not meant to appeal to teens, that it's just to promote brand loyalty and brand switching in adults. It will also stress that such a ban violates First Amendment guarantees of free speech.
The bill, first introduced last year, was reintroduced this year and is now pending in this House subcommittee. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D) of California, chairman of the subcommittee, says, ``The important thing to realize is the way these companies have been able to sustain themselves in light of millions who have given up smoking. [The tobbacco companies] concentrate their advertising and promotion toward young people so they can get addicted and stay with it.'' He adds, ``That's why I think it's important to cut off the ability of the tobacco industry to promote this dangerous product. ''
The ban is a bold move. There's never been a ban on advertising a legal product before, a fact that Scott Stapf, assistant to the president of the Tobacco Institute, says is why the bill hasn't passed yet, and why there is no equivalent bill in the Senate. Last year the administration was split on the bill: then-chief of staff Donald Regan blocked a plan by Surgeon General Everett Koop to testify for a ban. Mr. Koop did eventually testify. Koop has often linked smoking to cancer and has called for a ``smoke-free society'' by the year 2000.
But proponents say that such a strong measure is necessary because the industry, in violation of its own code of ethics, is pursuing the teen market.
``If they're not trying to appeal to kids, why are they advertising in Rolling Stone magazine?'' says Alan Blum, founder and chairman of Doctors Who Care, a physicians' health-promotion organization.
Since 90 percent of all smokers start by the time they're 20, according to Office of Smoking and Health figures, there's more incentive to draw the teen-age market, ban proponents say. ``Teen girls are the only growth market,'' says an aide to Representative Synar. ``If they don't get them by the time they're 20, it's all over.''
``The industry is opposed to smoking by youths, and has stated so for over 20 years,'' counters Mr. Stapf, citing a school program sponsored by the industry in conjunction with the National Association of State Boards of Education called ``Helping Kids Say No,'' which is ``designed to discourage teen-age smoking.''
``There is no demonstrable evidence that advertising is the main factor in initiating smoking in teens,'' he adds. ``Studies show that it's peer pressure and role models that are primarily responsible for teen smoking.''
``No one is arguing that advertising and promotion are the only influence on cigarette consumption,'' says Dr. Blum. ``But advertising is the most policy-tractable.''
The industry, charges Blum and others, is not policing itself. He points out that its own code states that there shall be no advertising in publications directed primarily to those under 21 years of age, that no one depicted in the ads shall be or appear to be under 21, and that ads shall not suggest that ``smoking is essential to social prominence, distinction, success or sexual attraction.''
But Virginia Ernster of the department of epidemiology in the University of California Medical School, San Francisco, says there is a whole slew of ads that show kids, such as Salem's surfing and playing volleyball ads, and Kool's young motorcyclists. ``Kid behavior and kid clothing,'' says Dr. Ernster. And the ads with slightly more mature models appeal to kids, presenting alluring role models.
``Looking at contemporary ads, one sees a sense of independence, of being in control, of athleticism, attractiveness, and healthiness, spanning the spectrum of social desire, however one might define it,'' she says.
Edward Popper, associate professor of marketing at Northeastern University, points out that smoking is legal for 18- and 19-year-olds in half the states. ``They're legal customers. Why wouldn't they target legal, legitimate customers?''
Synar says, ``The industry spends $30 million on advertising in Sports Illustrated magazine, 30 percent of whose circulation is under 18; and $6 million on Glamour magazine. Twenty-five percent of those readers are under 18. Moviegoer magazine, passed out in movie theaters, is totally advertised by tobacco companies, and 50 percent of moviegoers are less than 18.''
Stapf looks at those figures differently. ``Seventy percent of Sports Illustrated readers are adults; that's primarily adult. The companies don't go to Teen Beat or Seventeen magazine,'' he says. ``The industry has locked itself out of a number of publications because they are aimed at youthful readers.''
The tobacco outreach into the marketplace is massive. More money is spent advertising and promoting cigarettes than any other product, according to the Federal Trade Commission; some $2.1 billion a year.
Cigarettes are the single most advertised product on billboards. Cigarette advertising has been banned on television and radio since 1971. But cigarette billboards are often seen on television, strategically placed where cameras will pan past them every time a home run is hit or a field goal made. The industry is also heavily into sponsorship of athletic and cultural events: the Kool Jazz Festival, Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, Virginia Slims tennis tournaments, Winston Cup drag racing, Philip Morris sponsorship of the Joffrey Ballet's national tour and the Vatican art exhibit.
``They're spending large budgets in race-car driving, soccer games, things that are appealing to kids,'' says Michele Kling, spokeswoman for the American Lung Association.
The industry's code prohibits sample distribution within two blocks of schools, playgrounds, or college campuses. ``That code of ethics is more honored in the breach,'' says Kenneth Warner at the University of Michigan. ABC's ``20/20'' showed samples being passed out in front of a sports arena.
Blum says that a ban alone won't do the trick. What's needed is counteradvertising. ``We have been immunized by the industry to accept the image of the Marlboro man and the Virginia Slims woman,'' he says. ``Banning wouldn't remove that. We need to counteract it in order to overcome the enormous persuasive power of the industry.''
Mr. Waxman also suggests a hefty tax on cigarettes, to go for health-care benefits. ``At the least we shouldn't be giving a tax credit for this advertising. That means we're subsidizing it.''
He says the chances of the bill's passage are ``good, but it's going to be a difficult bill to move because of the strong opposition of a very powerful tobacco lobby and some of its allies.'' He says there isn't a precedent for banning the advertising and promotion for a legal product, because smoking itself is unique. ``It's an unusual situation that a product, when used as intended, kills.''
Teens against smoking
In order to help counteract the seductive images in tobacco ads, the American Lung Association has marshaled the forces of two 17-year-old television celebrities.
Allison Smith, who plays Jenny on ``Kate & Allie,'' and her boyfriend, Brian Bloom, who plays Dusty in ``As the World Turns'' have taken over from Brooke Shields as the celebrity figures the American Lung Association is using to discourage teens from smoking. Ms. Smith will testify at the congressional hearings.
As part of the ``Smokefree Family'' campaign, the two travel to junior high schools and talk about how smoking is dangerous, addictive, and uncool. ``Our message is for them to not start smoking,'' said Ms. Smith, in a recent phone interview. ``We give them reasons why you shouldn't start; whether it's sports or whether it's telling them that 1,000 people a day die from smoking. We want to talk to them like teen-to-teen, we don't want to be an image yelling at them. They have parents for that.
``Mainly what we put back in their faces is that their parents started at 12 or 13 and it's terribly hard for them to stop.'' Part of the campaign is to have students ask smoking parents to stop.
Then there's the dating angle. ``We tell them about the survey that says 75 percent of teens, smokers and nonsmokers, don't want to date someone who smokes,'' says Smith.
``It's like kissing an ashtray,'' adds Mr. Bloom. ``When smokers themselves say they don't want to date a smoker, that tells you something. ...
``What works well with the girls is the weight business,'' he says. ``Smoking may make you lose a little weight, but in the long run, you lose athletic ability and health. With boys, it's athletics. Smoking can keep you from getting into college, if you're depending on an athletic scholarship, and smoking wrecks that ability.
``We tell them, `The advertising companies pay millions of dollars to find certain photos or slogans that will appeal to teens, and you are falling for it.' They have ads that make people look so cool, doing things kids like to do. ``It makes the kids feel uncomfortable to think they've submitted themselves to that advertising,'' Bloom says.