Starting to smoke as a teenager is the best way to increase your chances of becoming a lifelong smoker. And since that particular habit carries a risk of cancer and early death, it makes big sense to do everything possible to keep kids from lighting up in the first place.
[Read How to Keep Kids from Smoking.]
"We all know and understand that tobacco dependence is recognized as a pediatric disease," Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Howard Koh said at a news conference this week announcing new federal restrictions on the sales and marketing of cigarettes. "Ninety percent of users begin before 19 years of age. Many die too early, and for them prevention comes too late." Half of teenagers say they've tried cigarettes before graduating from high school, and 20 percent of high schoolers say they have smoked cigarettes in the past month, according to 2007 CDC data.
Indeed, the new Food and Drug Administration rules are aimed specifically at tobacco marketing to children and teenagers. The rules ban sale of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco to anyone under age 18, prohibit sale of "kiddie packs" with fewer than 20 cigarettes, and ban vending machine sales in most cases. They also attempt to rein in the vast tobacco-marketing apparatus by:
- Prohibiting the use of tobacco brands to sponsor athletic teams and events, rock concerts, and social events.
- Banning promotional merchandise such as hats or T-shirts with tobacco brand logos.
- Excising music and sound effects from audio ads for tobacco products.
But will these changes be enough? The number of teenagers who smoke hasn't declined at all in the past decade, as the effects of earlier efforts to raise prices and rein in teen-oriented advertising (remember Joe Camel?) have waned. I know lots of smart teenagers who are well aware of smoking's health risks but do it anyway. "Yeah, I know, it's stupid," one said to me as she waved her cigarette overhead at a party.
It doesn't help that celebs like Lady Gaga (who got in hot water for smoking during a recent concert in Canada), Gossip Girl star Taylor Momsen, and Twilight star Robert Pattinson light up in public. Clamping down on tobacco advertising won't hurt, but it might help a lot more if the FDA got La Gaga, a famously pants-less performer, to publicly shun cigarettes. Lose the cigs as well as the pants? That's an ad campaign I'd like to see.
Smoking but wish you could stop? My colleague Lindsay Lyon gives you 12 reasons to really quit smoking.