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Administration's Anti-Smoking Strategy: Target the Attention on Adolescent

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Washington

The Clinton Administration is using the specter of teenage smoking to market an anti-smoking message and take aim at the tobacco industry.

But with Republicans slatedZg_ake control of Congress in January, tobacco companies are breathing a sigh of relief, and many anti-smoking advocates are concerned that the Administration's campaign will be snuffed out.

Commissioner David A. Kessler of the Food and Drug Administration has often decried the epidemic of teenage smoking in the agency's effort to regulate tobacco as a drug. And during debates over health-care reform, President Clinton justified a tobacco tax as a source of financing by arguing that it would discourage nicotine-addicted children.

Most recently, Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders joined the baseball stars Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle last month in an effort to strike out tobacco use among youths. The two athletes will appear in public-service announcements to denounce chewing tobacco, which is closely associated with baseball.

The national campaign against chewing tobacco also commissioned the cartoonist Charles Schulz to draw a "Peanuts" strip showing Charlie Brown, in baseball cap and glove, telling Linus not to chew.

Tobacco manufacturers are marketing their products to young people through aggressive advertising campaigns, federal officials charge, and the anti-tobacco efforts are an attempt to send the message that it is "cool" not to use them.

Over three million American adolescents smoke cigarettes, consuming nearly one billion packs each year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The average age at which smokers first try cigarettes is 14«, and 70 percent of smokers are habitual users by their 18th birthdays, the C.D.C. says.

"We can no longer discuss tobacco use as an adult habit. Smoking is without question an adolescent addiction," said Dr. Elders, whose annual report this year focused on the health effects of tobacco use on youths.

The Politics of Smoking

The scientific community largely agrees that nicotine--one of the active ingredients in cigarettes--is an addictive substance. But that conclusion is still under dispute in the political arena.

In the past year, the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment has held several hearings examining charges that the tobacco industry manipulates the potency of nicotine in cigarettes. If that is found to be true, the F.D.A. would have the authority to regulate cigarettes as a drug without the approval of Congress. Leading tobacco companies such as Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds have called the Congressional probe a "witch hunt." At each hearing, the makers of Marlboro- and Camel-brand cigarettes supply their own research disputing nicotine's addictiveness.

Most observers expect the House panel's new leadership to curtail the inquiry, if not shut it down entirely. With that in mind, the current chairman, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., will take the unusual step of holding a post-adjournment hearing this week on the hazards of chewing tobacco.

Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., R-Va., who is in line to be the new chairman of the subcommittee, is already defending tobacco interests from the Administration's attacks. His district is the home base of the tobacco giant Philip Morris.

"I don't think we need any more legislation regulating tobacco," Mr. Bliley said after this month's elections, cautioning the F.D.A. to base its inquiry on "scientific evidence and not political correctness."

Smoke-Free Schools

But Charles Boesel, Mr. Bliley's spokesman, said he is "certainly not in favor of any child smoking" and would not try to undo efforts to curb smoking in schools.

Last year, Congress added a provision to the Goals 2000: Educate America Act that bars Goals 2000 funding for schools that fail to adopt a no-smoking policy. (See related story )

Political opposition aside, it is unclear whether advertisements and Congressional hearings will reduce the number of young smokers.

But the response so far has given Administration officials and health experts hope. Thousands of young people across the country have already pledged not to smoke as part of Smoke-Free 2000, an initiative launched last year by the Health and Human Services Department.

Dr. Elders said the Administration is committed to curtailing smoking by young people, and warns that if this trend is not reversed, the nation will likely have an epidemic of oral and lung cancer in 20 years.

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