January 21, 2020

Parents immunize children against diptheria, tetanus, polio, measles and mumps. They ensure their kids wear helmets when riding bicycles. They secure them into car seats and, later, seat belts in automobiles. But, for reasons that have to do with politics and money, parents have been unable to protect their kids from a major long-term health risk.

President Bill Clinton yesterday took important steps to change that when he outlined an encouraging plan to keep kids from taking up the habit of smoking. Battling against an industry that spends billions of dollars each year seeking new customers, the measures are a direct assault on youth smoking without preventing adults from using tobacco.

David Kessler, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, is correct in calling smoking a “pediatric disease.” Tobacco companies haven’t used cartoon figures and inexpensive giveaways because these gimmicks would appeal to a 40-year-old; they knew these devices would be effective tools for attracting the young teens. The industry spent $6 billion a year on advertising and promotion in the early 1990s, when daily smoking among eighth-graders rose 22 percent. The FDA estimates that adolescents buy about $1.26 billion worth of cigarettes each year.

Congress, which has supported the industry for decades, eventually got fed up with its tactics for enticing children and possibly manipulating nicotine levels, and held hearings last year. The public got a sense of the industry’s arrogance when executives testified that they did not believe evidence that smoking caused illnesses and that, after all, the addiction question is overstated. That attitude recently provoked an overdue response from the American Medial Association, which is calling for tougher federal regulations.

President Bill Clinton’s proposals Thursday would require the tobacco industry to fund a $150 million education campaign to stop kids from smoking; forbid brand name sponsorship of sporting events and advertising on products such as hats and T-shirts that are unrelated to tobacco use; and ban cigarette vending machines and self-serve displays, allowing cigarettes to be sold from behind a counter. These are worthy measures to counteract a longtime campaign by cigarette manufacturers to hook children on smoking.

The president’s proposals also are a response to the industry’s failed voluntary programs of the past. His message is clear: the tobacco industry is not to be trusted. Barry Goldwater, former senator of Arizona and no fan of government regulation, wrote Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal that, “I’ve watched the tobacco industry make promise after promise to avoid government oversight for the past 40 years. With every promise, they give an inch, grudgingly, and buy enough time to hook another generation.”

With the support of Congress, the president’s plan has a chance of reversing that pattern with this generation.

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