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Smoking Guns and Smoking Youth

By Tanya Dutta

Now that they have drawn first blood from the tobacco empire, I wish the state attorneys general would do something more worthwhile with their time. Two weeks ago, 22 state attorneys general and the Liggett group, a cigarette manufacturer, struck a deal to resolve smokers' claims. Anti-smoking forces rejoiced because the Liggett group also agreed to surrender documents that may incriminate other, larger tobacco companies. This capitulation by Liggett is a cause for celebration, at least for those who started smoking before the government's recent war against tobacco companies.

However, those who started smoking amidst the anti-smoking campaign made that decision fully aware of many of the dangers of cigarette smoke. For the past 24 years, "Surgeon General's Warning: Smoking is hazardous to your health" has appeared on all cigarette boxes and in cigarette ads. As adults who knew the risks associated with tobacco, smoking was their prerogative. Why should states waste time and money battling tobacco companies in the courts over smokers who made a poor, but autonomous and informed, decision?

The real battleground of smoking is the youth market. This is where attorneys general should be concentrating their forces. Considering that only over-21 adults can buy tobacco, we can fairly conclude that there should be no youth market for cigarettes at all. Yet although the number of smokers overall in the U.S. is declining, the number of teenage smokers is increasing. Cigarette manufacturers insist that youth are not their target. However, Liggett admitted in the agreement that they did, in fact, target youth. In this admission lies the real victory. "For 30 years the tobacco industry has said to anyone who will listen, 'We don't market our products to children,' despite the fact that virtually all new smokers start as children and are addicted before they are old enough to purchase the product legally," said Matthew Myers, a lawyer for the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Of course, the government has not been unaware of the increase in under-age smokers lighting up, nor has it been silent in response. The FDA cracked down on cigarette billboards near schools and on cigarette ads in magazines with youth readerships. But there is only so much a single agency can do against tobacco companies that have a total advertising budget of $5 billion. If the states joined the battle, tobacco companies could be shut out of the youth market de facto, as they already are de jure.

Government regulators, forced to pay through Medicaid for the treatment of myriad cases of emphysema and lung cancer, have launched their own assault against tobacco companies. Yet they have been unable to win in a court of law, despite revelations of the addictive properties of nicotine. Tobacco companies have never paid a cent for health problems incurred by smoking. Fortunately, now that the Liggett agreement will unearth older documents, the states may have more fire-power. But what will be the end to this war? Will states be happy with the destruction of Philip Morris, which has 48 percent of the market share? Even if the monolith did go bankrupt, another company would rise to take its place. No matter what path the government takes to its goal of recouping on Medicaid money spent on smoking damage, ultimately it will have to focus on young future smokers. Stopping young Americans, who are legally unqualified to make the decision to smoke, from smoking is the only way to stop smoking-related illnesses.

However, it seems that the states are hesitant to get involved. Why aren't the states poised to battle for their young? What is readily apparent is the lack of impetus from the so-called besieged. After all, the youth of America are not rising up against cigarette advertising themselves.

Another cause may lie in historical forces. Tobacco and the U.S. have gone hand-in-hand from the beginning of our nation's history. In 1617, those settlers in Jamestown sent off the first shipment of tobacco to England. Although the use of tobacco went against their strict religious principles, the settlers were not puritanical enough to shun the high price the tobacco brought. The repercussions of their decision are still being felt today. By deciding to quell any moral qualms in favor of the profit margin, those tobacco farmers founded a tradition of disavowing any moral obligations that present tobacco companies continue to heed to this day.

The lack of moral obligation is not restricted to tobacco companies. Companies which in recent years have focused on making sunscreens now realize that teens don't care about potential sun damage. This year they are marketing new suntan oils and lotions without sunscreen. Twenty years later we may start to see lawsuits from the tanned teens of today who foresee skin cancer in the forecast of tomorrow. That is the danger, unless, of course, the country looks ahead to protect its future.

Tanya Dutta's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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