Make Tobacco Firms Cut Teen Smoking

Robert B. Reich, the former U.S. secretary of labor, is a professor of economic and social policy at Brandeis University

The tobacco companies say no. They won’t agree to the new bill now moving through Congress that would require the industry to pay $506 billion over 25 years. It’s too much, they say. And besides, the bill wouldn’t give them immunity from lawsuits claiming damages to health. They’d rather fight than switch to bankruptcy.

Congress and the president still can enact the law, of course. But if the tobacco companies choose to fight it, the law could be tied up in the courts for years. That’s tobacco’s threat.

Two provisions of the current bill are particularly vulnerable to constitutional challenge by the tobacco companies. Neither provision has to do with the huge penalties the companies are upset about, but the companies will use them to make their case in court. One would strictly limit cigarette advertising and marketing--particularly in situations where kids might see or hear the pitch. The other would force the companies to pay relatively small additional fines if the rate of teen smoking doesn’t decline 25% after five years and 45% over the decade. Some constitutional experts say the companies have a good case.

What’s the likely outcome of this standoff? Congress won’t back down from the big-buck penalties because almost no legislator these days wants to appear to be caving in to tobacco. The public wants tough anti-tobacco legislation.


But in order to minimize the risk of a constitutional challenge, Congress is likely to drop these two provisions. That would be a shame, because they’re the most important parts of the bill.

Teen smoking is on the rise. A new survey shows that 43% of high school students are now smoking or chewing tobacco at least once a week; 9% of eighth graders light up every day. By the time those same students are high school seniors, 25% are smoking daily. That’s a record level, the highest percentage in two decades.

This is what the new legislation should be attacking, first and foremost. Once these kids are hooked. it’s hard for them to unhook, as any adult smoker knows. Cut teen smoking and there’s a better chance they’ll avoid cigarettes later on.

Parents have some responsibility here. So do the kids themselves. But as any parent of a teenager will tell you (and I have two, both boys), teenagers are in a world of their own. They’re especially susceptible to peer pressures. If smoking is “cool,” many of them will light up.


What makes smoking cool? That’s where the cigarette companies have done their worst. There’s abundant evidence they’ve intentionally been marketing cigarettes to teenagers. They’ve sunk billions of dollars into making cigarette smoking appear to be sexy and hip.

The goal should be to make smoking so uncool that no teenager in America wants to be seen with a cigarette.

But the way things are going with the cigarette legislation, we won’t get there. Without the targets to reduce teen smoking, and without the restrictions on advertising and marketing, the kids will still be lighting up long after the legislation gets enacted.

Washington has its eyes set on the big prize--that $506 billion to be paid by the cigarette companies. The states want a chunk of that to help defer health care costs. The president is counting on $65 billion of this booty to finance his domestic agenda over the next five years.


The $506-billion penalty is enough to raise the price of a pack of cigarettes by about $1.10, but most experts think that’s not nearly enough to deter teens from buying. They’ll just go without those extra candy bars.

Washington has it upside down. The really big bucks ought to be charged against the companies for failing to reduce teen smoking to the target levels. Let the companies worry about how to accomplish this. Let them decide what it takes--whether it means billions of dollars of anti-smoking advertisements and anti-smoking music videos, anti-smoking leaflets dumped from dirigibles or cartoon dromedaries saying smoking is for nerds.

After all, tobacco companies are experts at marketing cigarettes to our kids. They know more about how to get teenagers to do things (or stop doing things) than almost anyone else. It’s only fitting that they be charged with getting our kids to stop smoking. If the tobacco companies don’t succeed in reducing teen smoking 25% in five years, 45% in 10, they should be hit with an eye-popping penalty--say, $506 billion. But if they pull this off and get the kids to cut way back, they should pay only a small portion of the fee and their yearly liability limit should be lowered.

Let’s give the tobacco companies a challenge they can’t refuse. Let’s give them a huge financial incentive to do what’s right. And why wouldn’t they agree? If they succeed, they’re off the hook--and so are our kids.