Tobacco has created vexing problems in our country, and there are no simple solutions. But given that 90 percent of adult smokers begin before they turn 19, the answer has to start with our children.
Unfortunately, but perhaps understandably, much of the recent debate over the proposed tobacco agreement has centered on revenge against the tobacco industry, rather than on ending tobacco marketing and sales to children. It has focused on payments to lawyers, rather than on saving the lives of the thousands of kids who start smoking every day.
Far from being a settlement of all legal claims, the deal reached by state attorneys general in negotiations with the tobacco industry is a fully funded plan designed to attack tobacco use among children and adults, and to protect the public from the dangers of tobacco addiction.
Under the agreement, the Marlboro Man and all other human or cartoon advertising images would be eliminated. The deal would put an end to tobacco billboard advertising. Hundreds of millions of dollars would go toward educating kids about tobacco. Tobacco retailers would be licensed, and they would be fined if they sold cigarettes to minors. The agreement would fund programs to help people quit smoking, and would allow for full regulation of tobacco.
The plan wasn't negotiated for the lawyers or for the tobacco plaintiffs - it was negotiated to save the lives of children by taking advantage of the legal and public pressure that's been brought to bear on the tobacco industry in recent years. It doesn't end the war against tobacco companies; rather, it marks the beginning of a more aggressive, more successful battle against a deceitful industry.
SUCCESS is greatly needed. Victories have eluded those fighting the tobacco industry. Not a single dime has yet been paid to a tobacco victim.
Tobacco marketing campaigns continue to lure children to smoke, while the Marlboro Man has joined Coca-Cola as one of the world's most recognized trademarks. Smoking among high-school seniors has reached a 17-year high, and tobacco-related diseases are draining health care dollars at record rates.
The truest and most meaningful measurement of any tobacco proposal is how well it would protect public health and save lives. The agreement proposed by the state attorneys general could save the lives of an estimated 1 million children. It would attack the problem at its core by reducing illegal sales to children and eliminating marketing aimed at kids. With 3,000 young people becoming regular smokers every day, it would produce results without waiting for endless legal appeals.
The proposed agreement can and should be strengthened, and a report issued by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and former US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler has set important guidelines for improving the plan. By addressing their concerns, including those about FDA jurisdiction and the level of penalties against the industry, we can ensure a strong and effective agreement. If President Clinton and Congress tackle these issues and forge an acceptable final plan, far fewer children will be sentenced to a lifetime of deadly tobacco addiction.
Without the proposed agreement, progress is less certain. While the FDA regulatory plans may offer the best hope, the agency's ability to restrict industry marketing - an important contributing factor to teen smoking - was struck down by a federal judge. The limited successes in the courts and at the state level have been slow and costly and show few signs of producing significant results any time soon.
We can wait out these efforts. We can hope that the tide will turn in the courts and that the tobacco industry will be brought to its knees. But there is a deep cost to maintaining the status quo. While we fight the industry in the courts, children will continue to be lured by the Marlboro Man and his appealing counterparts. While we wage battles in the state legislatures, kids will continue to have easy access to cigarettes in convenience stores. And well over 400,000 Americans a year will die from tobacco-related diseases.
The agreement's promise is an immediate attack on the problem of youth smoking - tearing down billboards, restricting other advertising, educating kids - while still allowing lawyers and legislators to fight battles into the future.
This deal has the potential to accomplish more than has been done in the last four decades - and more than could realistically be achieved right now by other means. Every day we delay, thousands of our youngsters will fall prey to a deadly addiction. Even one is too many.
r* William D. Novelli is president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.