Cut the Taxpayers' Subsidy of Cigarette Advertising.

IN the course of debating a bill on how to use tax policy to address a wide range of problems in our cities - and especially how we can help the millions of young Americans who live in these urban areas - I urged the Senate to take a long overdue step that would contribute significantly to achieving this goal.

My proposal was simple: Place on tobacco advertising and promotion expenses the same modest limitation on tax deductibility that we impose on business meals and entertainment. My amendment would also have authorized funding to the states - at the same level as the revenues generated by this change - to support advertising designed to reduce the use of tobacco products by our children, pregnant women, and minorities - all targets of the tobacco industry's advertising campaign.

Why is this step important? Consider Old Joe Camel. Since 1986 he has been the mascot of the Camel Cigarettes advertising campaign. Camel ads tell us that he's a "smooth character." If you don't recognize Old Joe, just ask any six-year-old you know. He'll recognize him. According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, more six-year-olds can identify Old Joe Camel than can adults.

In the three years following Old Joe's introduction to the American public, the illegal sale of Camel cigarettes to children under 18 years of age is estimated to have risen from $6 million per year to $476 million a year.

And here's the kicker: The advertising campaign that made this possible is subsidized by the American taxpayers. Under current law, R. J. Reynolds can deduct the cost of their entire advertising campaign. Taxpayers get stuck with the bill. They also have to pay for the subsequent health-care costs.

This year, Americans will spend $114 million through the Public Health Service to help people stop smoking and reduce health costs. At the same time, the tobacco industry is spending 30 times that amount - $4 billion in 1990 - to encourage people to start smoking. And we're giving them a tax break!

I propose a very small step: Reduce the tax deduction for cigarette advertising from 100 percent to 80 percent. And then transfer that money over to be used for a comprehensive and responsible advertising campaign to help reduce smoking.

Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan says that cigarettes are the only products that "when used as intended, kill." Do taxpayers want to be accessories to this? The advertising campaign they're paying for is working. The tobacco companies know what they're doing.

Early promotion of smoking misrepresented cigarettes as a healthful product that makes the smoker seem glamorous and successful. Today, the Tobacco Industry's Principles Covering Cigarette Advertising and Sampling state: "Cigarette advertising shall not suggest that smoking is essential to social prominence, distinction, success, or sexual attraction."

But one look at today's ads will tell you that this is exactly the message the tobacco industry is trying to send. And, more and more, these ads are being directed toward children and youth.

It's estimated that children and adolescents consume over 1 billion packs of cigarettes each year. Three thousand children will start smoking today. Our children pay $1.25 billion to the tobacco industry for the right to smoke their products. While 95 percent of high school smokers think they will quit, eight years later only 25 percent of them have been able to.

And taxpayers are helping to pay for this.

But we know how to stop it. Somebody once said that the best defense is a good offense. We know that counter-advertising works. California has the nation's most aggressive counter-advertising campaign in the country right now. In the past two years, it has decreased statewide smoking rates by 14.6 percent and saved $744 million in the process.

The measure I've proposed will allow every state to follow California's example. By simply reducing the tobacco advertising deduction from 100 percent to 80 percent and using the savings for a counter-advertising campaign, we will save lives, increase productivity, and reduce health-care costs - all without spending another nickel of taxpayers' money.

This time my amendment was tabled. But there'll be a next time.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.