With President Clinton's bold decision Thursday to impose new federal controls in an effort to curb smoking among teenagers, Washington finally has declared war on this major menace to public health.
But it is not yet the all-out war that is needed.For a complete campaign to be waged, Washington must sharply hike taxes on tobacco, stop subsidizing the production of this lethal crop, and otherwise start showing it cares as much about the health of adults as it does about teenagers.
Meanwhile, Clinton is to be warmly congratulated for putting the long-term public interest ahead of short-term personal advantage.
It would have been easier for the White House to avoid not only the potentially lengthy legal battle now being threatened by the tobacco in-dus-try but also the antagonism of the tobacco-producing South, whose votes could determine the outcome of the next presidential election.
But so many lives are at stake that no political sacrifice can be considered too great - and Clinton deserves all the help he can get from Capitol Hill and elsewhere.
As it is now, smoking claims the lives of at least 360,000 Americans a year. That toll is equivalent to what would happen if a fully packed jumbo jetliner crashed every 12 hours. Smoking triples the risk of sudden cardiac death, multiplies the risk of emphysema 11 times, and of lung cancer up to 25 times. It has become this nation's No. 1 preventable cause of death.
For the time being at least, the focus of federal regulatory efforts on young people is justified. While smoking is on the decline among adult males and until recently was going down for adult females, too, the trend among teenagers is on the rise.
Each day an estimated 3,000 young people start smoking in the United States. Sixty percent of them begin at age 13 or younger. This despite the fact that if a teenager smokes, it shortens the life span an average of 18 years.
What's more, smoking is often the first step to the use of other dangerous drugs. Students who smoke a half pack a day are 10 times as likely as nonsmokers to try cocaine and to drink liquor daily.
Under these circumstances, Congress has no business continuing to treat tobacco as if it were just another farm product to be encouraged with subsidies. This practice not only makes it harder to balance the federal budget but also puts the taxpayers in the position of underwriting disease and death.
Nor should Washington be content to rest with just the new regulations proposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in response to Clinton's initiative, tough though the changes are. Among the regulations are those that would:
- Ban all cigarette vending machines and self-serve displays, allowing cigarettes to be sold only by clerks from behind a counter.
- Allow sales of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco only to customers over 18 and require proof of age.
- Ban sale of individual cigarettes and of packs of fewer than 20 cigarettes, sometimes called "kiddie packs."
- Forbid brand-name advertising at sporting events and on products not related to tobacco use, such as T-shirts and hats.
- Require tobacco companies to pay for a $150 million advertising campaign, including TV commercials, to stop young people from smoking.
- Forbid outdoor tobacco ads within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds.
- Limit advertising in publications that reach a significant number of children and teenagers to black-and-white text only, with no pictures.
- Make manufacturers, distributors and retailers responsible for underage sales. The onus would be off the young buyer and part-time sales clerk.
What's also needed is a much stiffer tax on tobacco. The experience of Canada shows why. In the 15 years since Canada hiked its levy to $3 a pack, smoking among teenagers has been reduced by almost two-thirds.
On the basis of this experience, the Coalition on Smoking and Health estimates that smoking would drop 4 percent for every 10 percent tax hike. A tax increase of $2 a pack, the coalition projects, "is likely to reduce tobacco use by about 23 percent and encourage 7 million Americans not to smoke, preventing about 2 million premature deaths over time."
Few youngsters could afford cigarettes at $4 to $5 a pack. Neither could many adults; but then they ought to quit, too.
Meanwhile, whatever happens in Washington and the courts, some immediate and effective help can be provided closer to home. Fewer teens would start smoking if their parents would stop. Clinton could help by giving up his cigars. The example of their peers can have an even bigger impact on young people. Let's all start sending the message: No matter how old or young one may be, smoking is never smart or sophisticated.