Months after the Food and Drug Administration proposed to cut teen smoking in half, President Clinton has unveiled new regulations on cigarette advertising and purchases. Putting aside all of their other difficulties, can these new regulations possibly accomplish their objective? Roughly three million American juveniles are said to smoke and an additional one million young males use smokeless tobacco. Putting aside all of the other difficulties with the FDA proposal, can these new regulations possibly accomplish their objective?
The FDA proposes severe new restrictions on the advertising of cigarettes under the mistaken assumption that there is a direct relationship between advertising and the decision to begin smoking. But there is no reliable evidence in the literature to support this contention and plenty of evidence to contradict it.
Juvenile smoking actually increased in Finland after a complete ban on tobacco advertising was implemented in 1978. Norway, which completely prohibited tobacco advertising in 1975, has a higher percentage of juvenile smokers than does the United States. And black teens in the United States, presumably exposed to the same "persuasive" advertising as white teens, have far lower smoking rates.
It is widely acknowledged, outside of Washington, that the decision to start using tobacco products is influenced primarily by culture, family and peer pressure, not corporate advertising. So banning brand name event sponsorships, or limiting cigarette-brand logos on race cars and driver uniforms, will have no measurable effect on anyones decision to light up.
FDA Commissioner David Kessler would have us believe that billboards near playgrounds and the use of cigarette brand names on T-shirts (which would all be prohibited under the new regulations) have created a teen smoking epidemic. Nonsense. The marginal increase in teen smoking recorded since 1991 is easily swamped by the longer term steadily downward trend.
Listening to the FDA, one would never know that the percentage of high school seniors who smoke daily has fallen from more than 28 percent in 1977 to less than 20 percent in 1994. Smoking half a pack or more per day among high school seniors has declined from 17.9 percent in 1975 to approximately 11 percent today. Yet Kessler would prohibit cigarette vending machines and the distribution of tobacco products by mail even though there is no evidence that a curtailment of these marketing techniques would reduce teen cigarette consumption.
The bottom line is that these proposed prohibitions have little to do with changing cigarette consumption by teenagers. What they will do, however, is hurt certain advertisers, promoters of sporting events, tobacco manufacturers and their employees, and vending-machine owners, among others. Even more important, they will enhance the power of FDA bureaucrats to exercise additional control over private markets and lifestyles. And thats what the FDA smoke screen is really all about.
Make no mistake about it, the FDA would like to severely restrict the sale of all cigarettes in the United States. Kessler knows that total prohibition is politically impractical at the moment, so he starts the crusade with regulations that aim to "protect the children." And when these fail, as they must, the agency will return with stronger recommendations and sterner controls.
But controls are always a way of life in this industry. Laws addressing tobacco sales to minors are on the books in every state and the District of Columbia. Dozens of governmental agencies including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Trade Commission and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms already police and regulate the industry. Every state taxes cigarettes and most, like Connecticut, lump a sales tax on top of the excise tax. Cigarettes are already among the most taxed and regulated products in America.
The FDA has invited public comment, so it should be told that its proposed regulations will not affect teen smoking but will reduce employment and income in tobacco-related industries. It should also be told that its contrived rationale to regulate cigarettes as a medical device is as phony as a three-dollar bill. Finally, it should be told that freedom and persuasion, not regulation, are the primary social values that we choose to pass on to our children--whether they smoke or not.
Dominick T. Armentano
Dominick T. Armentano is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and professor emeritus in economics at the University of Hartford (Connecticut). He is the author of Antitrust & Monopoly.
Full Biography and Recent Publications