One need not wonder about the recent rush by tobacco mongers to develop programs that discourage kids from smoking. Sure, their motivation could be the fact that smoking by youngsters is at a 16-year high. But that would be naive.
The motivation is far more simple and self-serving: fear of regulation.
Last Friday, President Clinton declared war on tobacco sales to minors by announcing that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would clamp down on advertising and limit minors' access to tobacco products.
But tobacco companies and their retail allies are working overtime to develop their own antismoking campaigns. Each plan, whether put forth by the tobacco industry or the "No Ifs, Ands, or Butts" campaign by convenience store owners, seeks some type of quid pro quo to get government off their backs. They are portraying themselves as the good guys struggling to keep tobacco away from children, but what they really want is to be left to their own devices.
Much like the "We Card" program of the Coalition for Responsible Tobacco Retailing and other industry-backed youth programs over the past 15 years, the campaign by the National Association of Convenience Stores is a rehash of old ideas that don't work. The programs lack meaningful enforcement mechanisms and incentives for retailers to comply with minimum-age laws. The campaign also does a good job of passing the buck by establishing penalties for employees, rather than employers, who allow minors to make illegal purchases.
Linked to the plan by convenience store owners is model state legislation that mandates employee training but restricts government sting operations that would check on the quality of that training. They would allow only the police to conduct random inspections to verify employee compliance with the law.
Health organizations have a better approach that is consistently opposed by the tobacco industry and retailers. Health groups argue that any effective measure must include regular checks by a government agency to ensure compliance with minimum-age laws; removal of vending machines; mandated fines of store owners for selling to minors; and revocation of licenses for repeat violators.
AS for the tobacco industry, Philip Morris has been trying to peddle a youth antismoking campaign of its own, but it wants the FDA to agree it will never regulate tobacco, as it does drugs. Because the tobacco industry sells the only consumer product that isn't required to meet health and safety standards, it escapes any federal restrictions on the content of its cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products.
The Philip Morris proposal sounds good - a ban on mail-order sales and the distribution of free samples to consumers and removal of vending machines - until you look at the gaping loopholes. It continues to allow the use of the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel ads which kids find so appealing, and the cigarette company continues to sponsor sporting events. One recent study found cigarette advertising has three times the impact on youngsters than it does on adults. Marlboro claims 60 percent of the youth market, compared with only 22 percent of the adult market.
It's been one year since the FDA proposed putting restrictions on tobacco advertising aimed at minors and to ban all vending machine and mail order sales. It would ban outdoor advertising within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds; restrict ads with large youth readership to black-and-white text only; and ban the distribution of clothing and other items, such as baseball caps, that carry tobacco logos. Mr. Clinton has now taken action on these proposals.
Each day, 3,000 children become smokers and the numbers keep rising. The tobacco companies and convenience stores, which boast 20 million tobacco transactions a day, must continue their efforts to stop teens from smoking. Ninety percent of new smokers begin as youths. That is the most important battle being fought in the tobacco wars - the battle for the youth market.
Tobacco companies know if they win that battle, they will have defeated the antitobacco forces and will have gained another generation of addicted smokers. We must win the war by restricting the tobacco companies' ability to enlist new troops: America's children.
*William D. Novelli is president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington.