Should Congress Decide the Future of the Tobacco Industry?

Article excerpt

Yes: the public demands that lawmakers intercede on behalf of America's youth.

Smoking, according to the American Medical Association, is nothing less than a pediatric epidemic. Half a million Americans die of smoking-related illnesses, the vast majority of whom take up the habit in their teens.

Today, 3,000 children will begin a lifetime smoking addiction that quite likely will kill one-third of them. No fewer will begin tomorrow and every day thereafter unless we act.

These grim statistics, though staggering, can't begin to capture the human pain, suffering and loss of life they represent. Most everyone has a family member or close friend whose life ended early from a smoking-related disease. Enough is enough. The time for action is now.

Public-health authorities, including former surgeon general C. Everett Koop and past Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, head, David Kessler, agree that only a comprehensive approach to the problem of youth smoking will work.

Recently, the Senate Commerce Committee, which I chair, approved the National Tobacco Policy and Youth Smoking Reduction Act by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 19-1. The bill, modeled after the plan proposed by 40 state attorneys general last summer, is tough medicine for a tough problem.

The measure was developed in cooperation with the attorneys general, representatives of the public -health sector and the Clinton administration. It contains the six major initiatives experts say must be jointly undertaken if we are to cure the pediatric epidemic of tobacco use. These elements include: (1) advertising restrictions to eliminate marketing appeals to youth; (2) higher cigarette prices to deter underage consumption; (3) aggressive youth-smoking reduction targets and industry penalties for nonattainment; (4) stronger enforcement of youth tobacco-access rules; (5) public disclosure, oversight and regulation of cigarette ingredients; and (6) industry payments to compensate for smoking-related medical costs and to finance smoking prevention, cessation and medical-research programs.

First, marketing and advertising. Documents disclosed in courts and Congress prove that tobacco companies have targeted and groomed the youth market to replace the 400,000 customers they "lose" each year. Studies show that young people are particularly susceptible to the industry's marketing pitches. So effective have these companies been at appealing to youth, that many children can identify Joe Camel as readily as they do Barney or cartoon characters.

The bill would place vast advertising and marketing restrictions on the tobacco industry, including a ban on billboards and outdoor advertising at sports arenas, as well as a prohibition of color ads and the use of human and animal figures. It would restrict point-of-sale advertising to ensure that cigarette pitches aren't directed at children and would require bold, new warning labels on cigarette packaging. And, the tobacco industry would not be permitted to pay Hollywood to have its products featured in entertainment media.

Second higher cigarette prices. Experts say the most important step to deter youth consumption is to hike the price of tobacco products. Health studies show that consumption of only a modest number of cigarettes can result in clinical addiction, and that higher pricing is essential to deter underage use. Accordingly, the bill would increase the price per pack of cigarettes by a minimum of $1.10 over five years. The Clinton administration believes that this hike, included in the president's budget request, could cut youth consumption in half.

Third, youth smoking-reduction targets. Four-and-one-half million underage Americans use tobacco, and the number is growing.

The bill calls for a 60 percent reduction in youth consumption within 10 years and levies hefty financial penalties on the tobacco industry for failing to achieve them. …