FDA's Smoking Gun

CIGARETTE manufacturers were the first to respond. Then came the smokeless-tobacco companies, followed by advertising trade groups. Each has sued the Food and Drug Administration over its efforts to regulate the tobacco industry.

The FDA should be undeterred. Currently, it is taking comments on its proposed regulations to reduce teens' easy access to cigarettes and smokeless-tobacco products and rein in the advertising that makes these products so attractive. The focus of the proposed regulation is to keep future generations from becoming addicted to nicotine.

A recent Canadian Supreme Court decision came at an inopportune moment. The court ruled that a Canadian ban on tobacco advertising violates free speech. But unlike Canada, the FDA hasn't proposed an outright ban on advertising; rather, it wants to ensure that kids aren't bombarded by images inducing them to buy tobacco products - illegally.

Consider a few facts. An estimated 6 million teenagers and another 100,000 children younger than 13 years old smoke. Approximately 90 percent of regular smokers start before the age of 21. Tobacco products are advertised more heavily in the US than any other product except cars. Eighty-six percent of underage smokers who purchase their own cigarettes buy one of the three most heavily advertised brands.

The tobacco industry, of course, maintains that its advertising is geared toward drawing established smokers to particular brands. R.J. Reynolds, for example, denies targeting children with the oh-so-cool Joe Camel cartoon character, which was introduced in 1988. Right. But in 1986, the brand's market share among underage smokers was less than 3 percent. By 1993, it had grown to 13 percent

Among other things, the FDA proposes to restrict advertising that may reach children to a black and white, text-only format, based on studies that show young people are receptive to images and cartoons but less so to texts. It would ban outdoor advertising of tobacco products located within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds. And it would require cigarette and smokeless-tobacco manufacturers to set up and maintain a national education campaign on the dangers of smoking.

None of these measures alone would make much of a dent in underage smoking. Taken together, though, they could help to counteract the notion among kids that smoking is fun, harmless, and socially acceptable. For years, the tobacco industry has promoted this point of view. The FDA should be supported in in its efforts to refute it.

Tobacco products are advertised more heavily than any other product except cars.

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