Teenagers who pick up a cigarette for the first time may think of it as a harmless experiment. They are young and healthy, and they are unlikely to think that they are on a path to become lifelong smokers.
And yet they are wrong. One-third to one-half of teenagers who try even a few cigarettes will become a regular smoker.
It's easy to think of smoking as an adult problem. That's who dies from smoking. If someone has not started smoking by age 19 to 21, [he or she] is not likely to ever become a smoker. Nicotine addiction begins when most tobacco users are teenagers.
The tobacco industry says smoking is a free choice made by an adult. But ask a smoker when he or she began, and chances are you will hear the tale of a child.
Seventy percent of teens who smoke report that they regret ever having started. Seventy-five percent have tried to quit at least once and failed. And those who don't stop smoking are headed down a well-worn path of disease. Smoking-related illnesses kill more than 400,000 Americans each year.
That's more people than the amount of people killed by AIDS, car accidents, alcohol, homicides, fires and suicides combined. And the real tragedy is that these are preventable.
The tobacco companies target teenagers with their advertising campaigns, as they know the teen years are when smokers are made. In 1992, the tobacco industry spent $5.23 billion advertising its products, up from $3.13 billion in 1985. The only industry that spends more on advertising is the automobile industry.
The sheer magnitude of advertising creates the impression among young people that smoking is much more ubiquitous and socially acceptable than it is.
To make smoking seem glamorous to youths, tobacco advertising is regularly linked to the world of sports and entertainment. The industry also is increasingly using items like caps and bags with company logos printed on them to market cigarettes to teens. Tobacco companies also have developed chewing tobacco products that taste like candy and have low levels of nicotine as starter kits introducing teenagers to the world of nicotine addiction.
The FDA is currently deliberating on whether it can exert jurisdiction over nicotine as a drug, and thus could more sharply regulate access to tobacco products. Many people think that our society needs to make it harder for teens to buy cigarettes, and to deliver the message that nicotine is addictive and a serious health hazard.
Children are entitled to a lifetime of choices, not a lifetime of addiction.