At least since 1994, when seven tobacco executives testified before Congress that they didn’t think cigarettes were addictive, the public has not put great trust in those who sell carcinogens for a living. What Americans may not realize is that they also shouldn’t believe the people who are supposed to protect us from tobacco. When it comes to cigarettes, the federal government can blow smoke with the best of them.
That became clear the other day, when the Food and Drug Administration announced it was prohibiting the sale of cigarettes with candy or fruit flavors. “These flavored cigarettes are a gateway for many children and young adults to become regular smokers,” said Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. The ban, said Howard Koh, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, “will break that cycle [of addiction] for the more than 3,600 young people who start smoking daily.”
When it comes to escorting kids into addiction, such cigarettes are more like the eye of a needle than a gateway. You would never know from the government’s pronouncements that the nation’s three major tobacco companies — R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and Lorillard — don’t even make them. Notorious lines like Warm Winter Toffee and Winter Mocha Mint were removed from the market years ago. The only flavor the major producers use anymore is menthol, which happens to be one the FDA chose not to ban.
Only a few small companies still offer the sort of flavors targeted by the government. According to one maker, Kretek International, these cigarettes account for less than two-tenths of 1 percent of all U.S. sales.
When I asked an FDA spokesperson what portion of the cigarettes smoked by teens are flavored, she told me the agency doesn’t know. So how does it know they serve as “a gateway for many children”? How does it know that banning them will have any effect on the number of new tobacco addicts? Actually, it doesn’t.
In any case, the number of kids using these products can’t be very large. Michael Siegel, a physician and public health professor at Boston University, says that 87 percent of all high school smokers choose Marlboro, Camel or Newport, which don’t come in tutti-frutti flavors.
No surprise there. Siegel says that teenagers smoke because they want to seem older. But smoking something that tastes like bubble gum sends the opposite signal. Even when flavored cigarettes were more widely available, the great majority of adolescent smokers found them about as appealing as a Raffi concert.
The government’s figures on kids who start smoking are equally deceptive. When the assistant HHS secretary says 3,600 youngsters start smoking daily, he’s not using those terms in the way most people would. I smoked a couple of cigarettes in my youth, but I never “started smoking,” any more than I “started speaking Chinese” the one time I attended a Mandarin class.
It’s true that 3,600 kids under the age of 17 try cigarettes for the first time every day, but that doesn’t mean they will all become nicotine junkies. Many if not most of the experimenters soon lose interest. By the government’s own account, only about 1,000 teens each day become daily smokers. For a lot of adolescents who “start smoking,” there is no cycle of addiction to break, because they manage to avoid addiction on their own.
Lost in the government’s propaganda is that if the tobacco companies are trying to recruit kids into smoking, they are doing a very poor job at it. Last year, the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future Survey found that smoking among high school seniors is at the lowest level in the 33 years the project has been keeping track. Among 8th graders, tobacco use is down by two-thirds since the mid-1990s; among 12th-graders, smoking rates have fallen by nearly half. Only 11 percent of 12th-graders smoke every day.
It would be a good thing for adolescent health, of course, if none of them did. Maybe that will happen eventually, but banning sweet cigarettes isn’t likely to speed the day.