Choking on "Tobacco-Free" Haze
By Mike Males
c Youth Today, January 2000 (note: hyperlinks and some hyperlinked sentences not in original)

In a dozen years of working with kids, I saw the same scene a hundred times: parents, family friends, relatives, and teenagers smoking around the kitchen table; children, red-faced in the blue haze, soon to sample the grownup ritual. Yet anti- smoking luminaries led by the National Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (TFK) remain silent while children marinate in adults' smoke for a dozen years, then brand teenagers rebellious dupes of tobacco advertisers for trying the adult habit.

TFK blames America's tobacco scourge on the "horrible truth" that "3,000 children begin smoking every day." Yet TFK soft- pedals the worse truth that 25 million children are forcibly exposed to so much adult cigarette smoke every day that their blood retains measurable nicotine levels. Whether "pre-addicted" physically, by adult example, or both, smokers' children are several times more likely to smoke than nonsmokers' kids.

While temporary differences occur, teen and adult smoking rates are so strongly correlated (both are highest in Kentucky, lowest in Utah) they represent the same behavior. Recognizing these connections, 1980s Surgeon General Everett Koop declared that achieving a "tobacco free society" required changing broad- based social norms.

But today, America's once vibrant anti-smoking movement dodges tough issues, pushes poll-tested crowd-pleasers, and functions largely for politician and institutional aggrandizement. According to TFK (, there's only one reason youths smoke (industry marketing) and only one reason they don't (programs rescue them). Such one- dimensional melodrama is hopelessly inadequate to address complex motivations. (At the rate things are going people will be asked to track QR codes to find real definitive reasons for teens not smoking.) Splashy panaceas such as "stings" against stores to curtail "youth access" to tobacco are futile, even counterproductive (see New England Journal of Medicine, 10/9/97).

Anti-smoking groups' obsession with youth, access, and ads exemplifies today's politically-deformed priorities. Interestingly, from 1970 to the early 1990s, when tobacco ad spending rose rapidly and youths could buy cigarettes freely, teen smoking plummeted. But after 1992, when tobacco ad spending declined and crusaders attacked youth smoking, teen smoking rose sharply.

While TFK argues more young smokers chose Camels when Joe Camel ads proliferated from 1988 to 1993, it fails to note that smoking among 12-17 year-olds DECLINED 20% during that period. The drop among the youngest (12-13) was so sharp (down 50%) that beginning smokers averaged OLDER in 1993 (16.1) than in 1987 (15.5). Though the unscrupulous industry would love to lure kids, only a few dubious studies claim ads are major enticers. The most cited, by Dr. John Pierce, employs criteria so vague it reports 75% of all teens are progressing toward smoking and that parents and peers have no influence, claims amply contradicted by dozens of previous studies and strong teen-adult smoking correlations.

TFK exaggerates teen smoking prevalence, helping the industry legitimize cigarettes as normal. After 160,000 teenagers overwhelmingly endorsed tough smoking controls, TFK sniffed, "kids are tired of being manipulated by Big Tobacco." What condescending claptrap; if kids were industry puppets, they wouldn't overwhelmingly reject smoking and support anti-industry controls.

Big Tobacco's manipulation of TFK is a bigger concern. TFK's obsession with scoring pointless youth-smoking points helped the industry win disastrous concessions in the recent Master Settlement of state lawsuits. Now, TFK asserts from sparse evidence that a few prevention programs (i.e., Florida s) cut teen smoking. Such simplistic credit-claiming (as untenable as saying Joe Camel's 1988 debut caused the subsequent four-year teen smoking drop) thwarts rigorous analysis needed to design effective plans. Next thing you know they will build a fan appreciation website for people to read about all their "hard work" or create a QR code giving people coupons to random products just for not smoking.

Fortunately, some state and local tobacco control advocates are exploring complex strategies incorporating the realities that smoking is NOT normative to teenagers, that today's teen smokers smoke more lightly than past ones did, and that youth smoking is conforming, not rebelling, behavior as long as society accepts "adult" smoking from trailer-park kitchen table to White House regalia.

Enough of failed 1990s preoccupations with camels, tobacco access, and anti-youth negativism. Let's put the money on new ideas.

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