Published October 1995
Although the President claims that his decision to impose new regulations on tobacco is based on a desire to protect children from "the deadly temptation of tobacco and its skillful marketing," his decision to challenge Congress to issue the regulations points to a political motive.
Why issue a challenge to Congress? Possibly the Clinton Administration sees tobacco regulation as another way to paint Republicans as uncaring, "anti-child," and pro-big business. After all, Republicans are committed to regulatory reform and will be forced to oppose the president's ill-conceived plan.
While the President's political instincts may be sound, his grasp of the facts is not. Consider the following claims by the President and his allies:
Claim: Underage smoking is on the rise.
Fact: The President bases this claim on a University of Michigan Survey Research Center study that found a 30% increase in smoking over the past three years among eighth graders. But according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, youth smoking has been declining for 20 years. The number of smokers aged 12-17 declined from 25% in 1974 to 10% in 1993.
The problem with the Michigan study (and many smoking studies) is that it counts teen experimention as "smoking." A teen is a considered a "smoker" if he/she has smoked one cigarette in the past 30 days. By contrast, an adult is only counted as a "smoker" if he/she has smoked at least five packs of cigarettes in the same period.
Such studies also do not take into account that half of all smokers eventually quit. According to the Michigan survey, 19.4% of the 1994 graduating high school seniors said they smoked daily. This means that as little as 10% of the class of 1994 will have lifetime cigarette habits -- far less than the current national smoking rate of 25%.
Claim: Advertising limits and other restrictions will significantly reduce teen smoking.
Fact: The Michigan study found that marijuana use by eighth graders climbed by 144% and crack cocaine use rose by 133% between 1991 and 1994. These drugs have no Joe Camel. As Dr. Murray Jarvik, professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the UCLA School of Medicine, put it: "Social pressure seems to be the major factor initiating stages of drug use... When drug experimentation begins in childhood or adolescence, the user is often handicapped by a drug-filled environment, poor family structure, emotional immaturity, ignorance or denial of the dangers of drug abuse, absence of a desirable role model and the lack of treatment opportunities."
Family structure is believed to be a particularly strong factor in teen smoking. According to a 1989 study of 4,932 middle class eighth graders by Jean Richardson of the University of Southern California, "latchkey children" -- youth left unsupervised after school -- were at greatest risk of substance use by a 2-1 margin. Thirteen percent of latchkey children reported smoking a pack of cigarettes or more during their lifetimes, compared with only 6% of other children.
Claim: Cigarette smoking is the #1 avoidable cause of death.
Fact: There is another avoidable cause of death that claims at least four times as many Americans' lives each year: abortion, a "choice" the Clinton Administration seeks to protect. A key difference between these two "choices" is that smokers die of self-inflicted wounds, while babies taken in abortions do not.
Claim: Smokers are a burden on society because their medical expenses are significantly higher than those of non-smokers.
Fact: The Center for Disease Control (CDC) claims that smokers annually cost the nation an additional $50 billion in medical expenses. But these figures -- even if accurate -- show just one side of the balance sheet. Health care "debits" are counted, while smokers' "credits" are not. These statistics do not count the billions of dollars in taxes smokers pay annually through a cigarette tax. They also do not note that smokers pay higher health insurance premiums than non-smokers do. Further, if it is true that every year 420,000 Americans' lives are cut short by between 10-15 years due to smoking, presumably, smokers claim less lifetime social security and pension benefits. With an average social security retiree benefit of $7,692 per year (in 1993) the savings could be significant. Smokers presumably also claim fewer welfare dollars because of shortened lifespans. These savings may be significant, as 40% of men and 32% of women with incomes below the poverty line are smokers.
President Clinton may make short-term political gains by distorting the facts about teen smoking -- and the efficacy of government regulation in controlling it. But presidential-level disinformation and government reliance on ineffective regulations could hinder progress toward genuine deterrence of teen smoking. It thus is the President and his fellow tobacco regulators who truly may be uncaring, unfeeling and anti-child.