Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Why Are We Losing The Tobacco War?

October 21, 1996

Fewer and fewer adults use tobacco. It is considered a dirty habit that people do in private. It is discouraged and frowned upon. The nonsmoker rights movement has successfully taken smoking out of the public domain. Seventy percent of adult smokers would like to quit or regret that they had ever started.

As adults we think we are winning the war against tobacco. We are losing it.

In Canada, the proportion of Canadian youths age 15 to 19 who smoke has increased from 21 percent overall in 1990 to 1994 rates of 30 percent for girls and 27 percent for boys. In the U.S. cigarette smoking among students in grades 9 to 12 increased from 27.5 percent in 1991 to 34.8 percent in 1995. Twenty-five percent of white male students report using smokeless tobacco.

Since 1992 there has been a steady rise in smoking among teens - the smoking rate among high school seniors has risen by a fifth. This occurs among all social classes, all regions of the country, communities of all sizes, by both those who plan and those who do not plan to attend college and by boys as well as girls.

Dr. Michael Eriksen, ScD in Public Health, is the director of the Office of Smoking and Health at the Center for Disease Control at Atlanta Georgia. He says that the following four forces that came together around 1992 explain the resurgence of tobacco use among teens.

1. The pervasive and skillful exploitation of adolescent psychology by tobacco advertisers. From 1975 to 1986 there was a 35 percent drop in tobacco use among teenagers. "Joe Camel" was introduced in 1988 and this corresponded to an immediate rise in teenage smoking. By 1992, many teens had absorbed the advertising message. Smoking had gathered enough momentum to go from being uncool back to being cool again.

The tobacco industry spent $6 billion on advertising in 1993. This amounts to $3,000 per new smoker. It only takes 100 cigarettes to become an established smoker. Nicotine is a powerful, addictive drug. Even though only half of these teen smokers will still smoking at age 35, the tobacco industry will have reaped huge profits.

Teens vastly underestimate their ability to stop smoking. In a survey of teens who said they would no longer be smoking in five years, 75 percent were still smoking five years later.

Advertising strikes themes of independence, having fun, being attractive and glamorous, being older and more sophisticated, being in control and being a success. It is a lie. Nicotine is addictive and its users are not in control. In the long term cigarettes kill. It kills one of three users.

2. The anti-smoking success among adults and society created a perverse effect. Smoking became a way for teens to irritate adults and to act out their adolescent need to be different. The more something becomes frowned on and illicit by adults, the more attractive it becomes for expressing youthful aspirations of maturity. Smoking serves as a way to communicate an image of "on-the edge" quirkiness and rebellion. The whispering messages of the tobacco advertisers cater to the hormonal pressures of growing up.

3. The entertainment industry figured out what is going on and jumped on the bandwagon of their teenage market. Writers, directors, producers, and studio executives give their teenage audiences the rebellious messages they want. They can make money despite the socially irresponsible consequences.

Movie stars, sports stars, musicians and super-models light up in real life and in portrayals on the screen. They are role models for what is in and what is out, what is cool and what is not. They are competing authority figures who defy the anti-tobacco message given by society, parents, teachers, and clergy.

4. Cigarettes are easy to get, laws are not enforced and adult society acts hypocritically. About 57 percent of students in grades 9-12 usually bought their cigarettes from a store, from a vending machine or give someone else the money to purchase cigarettes for them. Less then one out of four high school students was asked to show proof of age when buying cigarettes in a store in the 30 days before a Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 1995.

Teens are tolerant. They do not like to restrict each other. They are willing to put themselves in an environment of temptation and underestimate the influence it may have on them. If their best friend experiments or if a critical mass of their peer group engages in high risk behavior, their resolve and commitment will be tested. Many years of being exposed to cigarette advertisements have prepared them to experiment with tobacco use.

Unfortunately, when it comes to nicotine, the pathway from experimentation to a lifelong addiction is short. What starts out to be a way to meet an adolescence psycho-social need turns into an addiction that will rob them of freedom, control, attractiveness, health and perhaps their very life.

What starts in youth cannot be easily stopped in adult life. That is the true message about cigarettes teens need to hear. It is a war we cannot afford to lose.