||Charles Bierbauer, CNN's senior Washington correspondent, reports on events in Washington and around the globe. Noted for his expertise in presidential politics, Bierbauer has spent more years at the White House than any U.S. president except Franklin D. Roosevelt.
No Easy Answer To Teen Smoking
By Charles Bierbauer/CNN
WASHINGTON (March 20) --Want to know how to stop teen smoking? Don't ask the sociologists, the demographers, the advertising agencies, and certainly not the tobacco companies. Ask teenagers.
Raise the price of cigarettes?
"Money is no object," says 18-year-old Jacob Falwell of Murray, Ky.
"Raising it $1.50 would not solve the problem," says high school senior
Elisa Svensson of Herndon, Va.
"Kids pay $150 for shoes," says 16-year-old Jamie Penn of Alexandria,
The teenagers delivered that message to members of Congress on the House
Commerce Health and Environment subcommittee this week. Committee members
realized they'd spent a lot of time wrestling with the problem of teen smoking
without talking to the real experts. They asked the youthful panel to tell
them why teens smoke and what society can do about it.
Ban advertising and banish Joe Camel to a distant oasis?
"The new advertisements for Camel cigarettes are even more creative, attractive and persuasive than before," says Nicole Gallegos, a Denver, Colo., ninth grader. She told the committee her six-year-old sister thinks the neon colors are "really pretty."
Gallegos urged the members of Congress to get a kid's view on cigarette
advertising. In markets, she notes, many tobacco promotions are about three
feet off the ground and "next to the candy displays."
The teens also told Congress to look beyond the persuasiveness of
advertising to find out why young people smoke.
"When you see your friends and parents lighting up, that has a powerful
impact," says Jamie Penn. "At that point, any anti-smoking propaganda that you
have digested is completely forgotten."
Penn surveyed his smoking friends to prepare for the hearing and found
nine of 10 felt peer pressure started them smoking. The smokers, he found,
are just as likely to be scholars and athletes as outcasts and nerds.
"One word -- apathy. An apathy I see in my generation toward the
consequences of their actions," says Svensson, who told the members of
Congress both her grandmother and grandfather were killed by smoking.
None of the teens invited to address the subcommittee smokes. Penn says
he tried it and didn't like it.
Jacob Falwell is opposed to teen smoking, but financially hooked on
tobacco. At age 18, he is a tobacco farmer, just like his father, grandfather
and great grandfather.
"My dad once stated, 'Tobacco is what we live on,'" Falwell explained at
the hearing. "It pays the bills."
It's paid for his car and it will pay for his college education. He tried
growing pumpkins one year, looking for an alternative, but found tobacco is the
best cash crop he can grow.
"This May I plan to set up my fourth crop of tobacco, increasing my
acreage from 3.5 acres to four acres of dark-fired tobacco," the teen farmer
told House members, reminding them that some 700,000 Americans depend on
Not that they didn't already know that. Rep Michael Bilirakis,
the Florida Republican who chairs the subcommittee, is among the top 25
congressional recipients of tobacco's campaign contributions.
Rep Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) assessed the teen testimony with a sense of pessimism: "Advertising won't stop it. Pricing won't stop it. Punishment won't stop it."
Last year's settlement was reached by the tobacco companies and the
attorneys general of a majority of the states. It cannot go forward, though,
without congressional legislation. There are proposals in both the House and
Senate for even tougher deals which would extract billions more from the
tobacco companies and offer them less protection from future lawsuits.
Just about everyone in Congress says there should be a tobacco bill. Even
tobacco state legislators want last year's settlement ratified. But there's no
guarantee Congress can find a compromise.
President Bill Clinton has endorsed at least three different proposals while
offering none of his own. The president does have plans to spend the windfalls
of a tobacco settlement, though that could lead to its downfall.
The original plan calls for the tobacco companies to pay $368 billion over
25 years. Congressional proposals could take that as high as $625 billion.
It's just too tempting a pot for any pol to keep hands off.
Much of it would go to paying off lawsuits against the tobacco companies,
for anti-smoking programs and funding research to cure the diseases it causes.
Clinton also wants to apportion the settlement to provide child health
care, extend Medicare to early retirees, build school classrooms and hire more
teachers. Though those may all be laudable goals, many Republicans in Congress
want to use the bulk of the settlement to stabilize the existing Medicare
system. They argue Medicare is the place to put it because it is stretched by
$25 billion a year to cover smoking-related diseases.
There are others who want the tobacco money to fund a tax cut. Others
would use it to draw down the federal budget debt.
At week's end efforts to put together a tobacco package had bogged down in
both the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees. Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) is bickering with the Treasury Department over
The whole effort is on a tight timetable, as the president keeps reminding Congress, with limited legislative time expected in this Congressional election year.
The teenagers could not give Congress easy solutions, but they gave it candor, something congressional committees do not always hear. The best lesson Congress might take from the teenagers is that peer pressure is the hardest thing to resist.
Congress needs to ask itself if it really wants to do something about smoking -- especially teen smoking. If the answer is 'yes,' peer pressure ought to be able to put the pieces of a settlement in place.