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Tobacco Regulations Aim To Curb Smoking by Teenagers

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Educators and health professionals are applauding President Clinton's efforts to curb teenage smoking by regulating the nicotine in tobacco as a drug. But, they say, stopping teenagers from using tobacco will require other efforts, too.

In an unprecedented act, Mr. Clinton said last month that he was trying to protect young people from the "awful dangers of tobacco" by authorizing the Food and Drug Administration to sharply restrict the advertising, marketing, and distribution of tobacco products to teenagers. The rules would not affect advertising in materials aimed at adults.

"Cigarettes and smokeless tobacco are harmful, highly addictive, and aggressively marketed to our young people," Mr. Clinton said in announcing the proposal. "The evidence is overwhelming, and the threat is immediate."

All 50 states and the District of Columbia ban the sale of tobacco products to minors, but enforcement of those laws is often lax.

"This is a first step," said Dr. Richard Heyman, the chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on substance abuse. "It certainly doesn't get the whole job done, but by looking at the access issue, it takes a step. I think that's a start."

Misguided Rules?

Health professionals consider cigarette smoking to be the chief preventable cause of premature death and disease in the United States.

Each day, 3,000 young people become regular smokers, according to a 1994 report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. And their rate of smoking appears to be increasing.

In a federally funded study released this summer, the University of Michigan found that between 1991 and 1994 the rate of smoking among 8th graders increased from 14.3 percent to 18.6 percent. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)

However, tobacco products are not likely to become less available to young people anytime soon. The regulations are only proposals, and the public has three months to submit comments.

In addition, tobacco companies and others have filed lawsuits in federal court, launching what promise to be lengthy legal challenges to the proposed regulations. The tobacco industry maintains that not only does the fda not have the authority to regulate tobacco but that the curbs on advertising violate the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.

Mark V. Tushnet, the associate dean for research at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, said the First Amendment arguments are fairly weak because the Supreme Court has said Congress can regulate commercial advertising. But, Mr. Tushnet said, whether the fda has jurisdiction to regulate tobacco remains a question.

"There's a lot of legislative history and other statutes indicating that Congress may not have wanted the fda to regulate tobacco," he said.

The fda claims it has jurisdiction because of scientific evidence showing that nicotine is addictive. Cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products are "nicotine delivery devices" that can be regulated in the same way that aspirin can.

Seeking a New Image

The idea, according to the fda's proposal, is not only to curb access by banning vending-machine sales, for instance, but to "significantly decrease the amount of positive imagery that makes these products so appealing" to adolescents.

Federal officials plan to do that by limiting advertisements in publications read by children to black and white text--cutting out characters such as Joe Camel--and by banning billboards that advertise tobacco products within 1,000 feet of a school or playground. In addition, the 20 pages of proposed regulations published in the Aug. 11 Federal Register call for manufacturers of tobacco products to establish and maintain a $150 million-a-year national public-education campaign aimed at children and adolescents. (See box, this page.)

The FDA hopes such a campaign would counter "decades of pro-tobacco messages" and reduce the use of tobacco by young people.

But an industry spokesman said that while tobacco companies back efforts to enforce existing laws barring sales to minors, the proposed advertising restrictions are misguided, illegal, and do not address the reasons teenagers smoke.

"Peer pressure and family and sibling influence directly come to bear on teenage experimentation with tobacco," said Thomas Lauria, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute in Washington.

"It has nothing to do with advertising," Mr. Lauria said, citing University of Michigan data showing that between 1993 and 1994 marijuana use doubled among 8th graders surveyed. (See Education Week, Jan. 11, 1995.)

"These kids are not seeing billboards for marijuana," he said.

Dr. Heyman of the AAP's substance-abuse committee said that even if the regulations went into effect, tobacco products likely would continue to be as accessible to teenagers as alcohol is now.

A comprehensive smoking-prevention program, he said, should raise the price of cigarettes for the price-sensitive youth market and look at how cigarette smoking is portrayed in movies.

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