Avoid the First Puff

by Jason Casell | 2/26/97 6:00am

Somewhere in the United States today, a teenager will strike a match and ignite a lifelong habit. The match will light the first among thousands of cigarettes this young person will smoke, gradually polluting his or her body until it ultimately succumbs to the ravaging effects of an internal black cloud.

According to the American Medical Association, more than 3,000 American teenagers start smoking each day, 90 percent of them under the age of 18. Seduced by slick advertising campaigns, many teens think smoking will offer them the sexy lifestyles portrayed in those ads, which feature beautiful women and strong men flaunting chiseled physiques while cigarettes dangle from their sculpted lips. But beneath these manufactured icons lies a hidden truth which tobacco companies hope teens will ignore -- nicotine, a primary ingredient in cigarettes, is addictive.

Scientists and tobacco companies have wrangled over the issue of addiction for years, a dispute complicated by the powerful tobacco lobby on Capitol Hill. While former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole ignored substantive medical proof of nicotine's addictive properties, President Clinton took decisive action last August by signing an executive order proclaiming nicotine an addictive drug and giving the Food and Drug Administration regulatory carte blanche over the multi-billion-dollar tobacco industry.

The new FDA regulations, set to take effect at the end of February, employ a two-pronged attack on tobacco advertising and the sale of cigarettes to minors. The regulations would replace glitzy cigarette advertisements in magazines comprising more than 15 percent youth readership with black and white, text-only ads. Cigarette billboards would not be permitted within 1,000 feet of schools and the sale of cigarettes in vending machines where minors have easy access would be forbidden. Tobacco sponsorship of sporting events and hats and T-shirts bearing tobacco brand names would also be banned. Additionally, retailers would be required to demand photo identification of purchasers under 27 years old.

These bold measures would send a strong message to tobacco companies that the government will no longer tolerate their preying on teens. But the tobacco industry is unwilling to accept the new regulations, and a group of tobacco companies is fighting back in court.

Federal District Judge William Osteen heard arguments last week from R.J. Reynolds attorney Michael Cooper, who disputed FDA regulation of nicotine as a drug, and said the FDA is "asserting power to ban this industry." Cooper, who previously served as chief counsel for the FDA, filed for a summary judgment, which calls for the judge to rule on the case without a trial. Osteen said that if he needs additional evidence, he will schedule a trial. He plans to reach a decision on the summary judgment motion in the next five to 10 weeks. Meanwhile, the regulations will probably be delayed until Osteen issues a ruling and in that time more teens will start smoking. Hopefully, Osteen will make the right decision and uphold the new FDA rules.

Teenagers represent a large revenue base for the nation's tobacco companies, and these companies shamelessly exploit teen insecurities at a time when they are most susceptible to external pressures to fit in. Teens are making the adult decision to initiate a life-threatening habit before they are mature enough to even vote in elections. For many of them, by the time they realize they want to stop smoking, they are so heavily addicted that quitting becomes almost impossible.

The blood money tobacco companies generate from the substantial teen market simply feeds the vicious cycle. The more money teens spend, the more spectacular the campaigns become to attract even more young cigarette buyers. "Everyone knows how difficult it is when the lessons learned at home are overwhelmed by the messages they get from popular culture, from billboards and magazines," Vice President Al Gore said last August. The new regulations would significantly hinder tobacco companies' ability to send those messages.

However Osteen rules, this matter will likely make it to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and then the Supreme Court. But a ruling for the FDA would likely be upheld by both courts as the Supreme Court has previously ruled that federal regulatory agencies are "responsible for continuing evaluations of new evidence and development in appropriate areas."

It is high time that tobacco companies clean up their acts. Since they haven't expressed a desire to do so willingly, the FDA rules would force them to. These new regulations constitute a crucial step in preventing the teenager with lit cigarette in hand from taking that first addictive puff.