Pundits & Prose
Bierbauer 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, Va.

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.

Anti-smoking education?

"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 tobacco-related jobs.

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 settlemen