An Adolescent View of Smoking
Hey kid, Hillary Clinton says you shouldn't light up. What could be cooler?

The American Enterprise, September/October 1998

Whatever its legislative fate, the antismoking movement has certainly become a cultural juggernaut. But has anyone stopped to ponder the message it's sending to teenagers?

Cigarettes are dangerous. They're for adults only. Teens are imperiled by their irresistible seductiveness. Authority figures of all kinds--politicians, teachers, editorial pages--agree they're bad.

Why not just come out and say it: Cigarettes are cool.

I was a teenager once, and I remember my teen years as a time of intense rebellion. I didn't smoke; my tastes ran more to fast driving, crank calls, and dopey libertarian opinions. But all teenagers instinctively recoil at being told what to do--a fact that seems to have escaped the notice of anti-smoking zealots. Their heavy-handed moralizing has made cigarette smoking into the ultimate act of adolescent rebellion, at once countercultural and politically incorrect.

Joe Camel, discontinued by R.J. Reynolds last year in the face of a threatened ban, has been transformed from a droll dromedary into an honest-to-goodness outlaw. If RJR really wants to sell cigarettes to teens, it could hardly do better than to run advertisements with the slogan: "Joe Camel is so cool, you're not allowed to see him."

In a recent issue of The Weekly Standard, Tucker Carlson describes efforts to enlist schoolchildren in the war against smoking. "At a New Jersey middle school, 13-year-old Jeff Koltys sits in front of a computer working with a desktop-publishing program to superimpose a photograph of a cigarette over a photograph of a tank. . . . As Jeff explains, the image he is creating has a simple message: 'Smoking kills.' Across the room, Jeff's classmates are working on similar projects. One student has used his computer to create a sinister-looking picture of Darth Vader smoking. Another has designed a grim wedding portrait of a bride and groom standing eye to eye in a graveyard, smoldering cigarettes in their teeth."

One can imagine how such goody-two-shoes propaganda goes over with the tough kids at Jeff's school. Just reading about it, I was so irritated I was tempted to smoke a pack or two--and I'm old enough to know better.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that the state of Florida is kicking off an advertising campaign against teen smoking, funded by an $11.3 billion lawsuit settlement. The terms of the settlement bar Florida from attacking tobacco companies directly; so the ads, produced by the Miami agency Crispin Porter Bogusky, target media and marketing industries instead. One ad demands: "How about a warning label on movies that glamourize smoking?"

Great idea! While we're at it, how about a warning label on movies that glamorize sex and violence, so teenagers will know not to see them?

Florida is also considering "guerrilla-type crank calls to companies that contribute to smoking," the Journal reports. Chuck Porter of Crispin Porter Bogusky suggests enlisting people to call employees of ad agencies that work for tobacco companies. The callers would say things like, "You do the Marlboro ads, and we blame you for that." Surely, if Porter is this juvenile, he knows his ads won't work.

As for the politicians, I don't know if Hillary Clinton, C. Everett Koop, and John McCain were ever teenagers. But Bill Clinton has no excuse, since by all accounts he still is one.

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