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Ad ban aims to fight teen smoking

By Catherine FosterStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 27, 1987


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.

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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.''