Light My Fire
America's Youth Pays the Price
By Richard Smithers

Lexington kids get the skinny on tobacco.

Smokescreens and Mirrors

These days, too many of our Kentucky youths are smoking instead of simply saying "no" to tobacco. However, seventeen-year-old Leslie Nussbaum, a youth board member at the American Lung Association of Lexington, is aware of the health hazards and has made a conscious decision to stay away from cigarettes. Nussbaum says more citizens should be concerned about youth smoking. "I think that tobacco-control initiatives are ignored, because smoking is still accepted and youths are such a target by the big tobacco companies. I think someone needs to be fighting against them. We are letting kids get hurt and we are not doing anything about it." Michael Elmo, a Lexington high school student, says he is a tobacco control advocate "because of what it does to people if they only knew the trouble it causes. Tobacco is not a turn on. People think it's cool - celebrities use it so much in the movies. If kids knew the facts then they would see it's not." Michael is describing a situation that has literally become an epidemic in our state.

Can any business suffer the loss of more than 400,000 of its customers annually and survive? The answer is yes. Such is the case with the American tobacco industry. Each year more than 400,000 smokers in this country die from tobacco related illnesses and yet the tobacco industry not only survives but thrives.

How is this possible? The answer lies in the recruitment of America's youth. Each day more than 3,000 young Americans addict themselves to tobacco. At current levels, nearly one in three high school aged Americans will become addicted to tobacco products and one third of them will die from this addiction.

While nationally, smoking among adults has leveled off, the rate of smoking for teenagers is on the rise. The slick ad campaigns of big tobacco cleverly target America's youth, all the while extolling the virtues of their deceptive attempts at discouraging teenagers from lighting up. Phillip Morris alone has spent more than one hundred million dollars publicly patting themselves on the back for their supposed efforts of dissuading teenage smoking.

Their efforts appear to be nothing but a smoke screen. In Kentucky, nearly 38% of high school students are current smokers, the forth worst rating in the nation compared to the national average of 28%. When smokeless tobacco is taken into consideration, we are the third worst state, at over 46% usage. Even worse, our middle school students have the highest smoking rate for their age group in the United States. If current smoking rates persist, nearly 88,000 of Kentucky's kids will die prematurely from smoking. That's the same number of people who presently live in Carlisle, Elliot, Fulton, Gallatin, Hickman, Lee, Lyon, Menifee, Nicholas, Owsley, Robertson, Trimble and Wolfe counties combined.

Although the tobacco industry claims no responsibility for the increasing numbers of youth smokers, the industry spends nearly $76 million annually on advertising and promotions in Kentucky. Clearly, tobacco companies continue to push their marketing agenda. Children are bombarded with cigarette advertising - the messages are plastered all over storefront advertising and widely read magazines such as Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, and Cosmopolitan.

Kentucky has a state law that prohibits the sale of cigarettes to anyone under the age of 18 and requires an ID check of anyone who appears to be under the age of 27. In spite of this, nearly 3 of 10 high school aged smokers admit to buying tobacco products from retailers. The same number have adults purchase cigarettes for them and 13% of middle school students admit to theft as their usual method of supply.

The fallacy of such a law is that it does not prohibit the use of these tobacco products by children of any age. A 14-year-old can have his 18-year-old brother buy cigarettes for him then legally stand in front of the store and puff away.

In Kentucky, local communities have no legal outlet for addressing their problems with youth access to cigarettes. Because of a tobacco industry legislative tactic called preemption, local communities are prohibited from passing any youth access law stricter than the state law. Furthermore, the lack of restrictive laws on vending machines make cigarettes even more accessible to children.

Where there's smoke

At the first annual Commonhealth Tobacco Conference in Louisville last month, Matt Meyers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids said tobacco advertising affects kids significantly. According to the Youth Tobacco Survey 2000, more than 70% of Kentucky high school smokers prefer Marlboro, the number one advertised brand.

While big tobacco has significantly affected youth smoking rates, its economic impact is equally devastating in Kentucky. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Kentuckians spend $1 billion per year for treatment of tobacco-related diseases with approximately one half of this coming from state and federal taxes. Kentucky women have the 7th highest rate of prenatal care in the nation. However, the state's low birth weight and premature birth rates are extremely poor (37th and 38th respectively in recent nationwide surveys). Even worse, nearly one quarter of all pregnant women in Kentucky are smokers, a situation recognized by health care professionals as potentially dangerous for the health and well being of their unborn babies.

For decades, breast cancer was the most prevalent cancer attacking women - no longer. Now, lung cancer is the number one cancer of women, a condition resulting from the sharp rise in women's smoking and almost entirely preventable.

One of the greatest influences to future tobacco victims is peer pressure. Some young people see it as a display of their independence, their rebellion or a declaration of adulthood. In their minds, they think it is cool to imitate others who have sentenced themselves to a lifetime of poor health, early death and senseless drain on their finances.

Normally, no one thinks of a tax increase as a positive step. In the case of an increase in the cigarette excise tax in Kentucky, much good can come from it. By making cigarettes less affordable to children, fewer of our youth will give serious consideration to taking up the habit. It would put much needed revenues in the coffers of our state treasury and it would make our state less attractive to smugglers intent on skirting the laws of other states.

Given the magnitude of the problem, clearly we need comprehensive solutions. The Center for Disease Control recommends that Kentucky greatly increase their spending for an effective tobacco-control. However, Kentucky funds its programs at only 15% of the CDC minimum recommendation. The state spends $3.65 million annually for tobacco-control programs - that's less than 5% of what is spent on tobacco advertising.

Spend more, smoke less

Kentucky ACTION, an organization dealing with tobacco control issues, says increasing the price of cigarettes is a powerful tool against youth smoking. "If you can only do one thing to try to reduce the number of people who are regular users of tobacco products, raising the price is the single most effective way to reduce consumption, particularly among young people." Kentucky's three cent cigarette excise tax has not been raised since 1970. It is a staggering 1,300% below the national average of 42 cents a pack. The average for the states contiguous to Kentucky is 21 cents.

A 75-cent per pack increase in the state cigarette excise tax could mean a nearly 18% lower youth smoking rate, and a 5% lower adult smoking rate. It could prevent as many as 26,000 smoking related deaths, many of them kids. Further, the tax hike could result in 48,400 fewer future youth smokers. Of course, in a tobacco growing state like Kentucky, a cigarette excise tax increase will be a controversial issue. Some will try to argue against this approach to curbing youth smoking.

Another argument against an excise tax increase suggests it would hurt the working class poor the most. But, such a tax increase would not affect the more than 70% of Kentuckians who are not smokers. While it is true that the working poor generally do smoke at higher rates, an increase in the price of cigarettes will benefit that same group by prompting some of them to quit or cut back. Fewer smokers will mean improved health and lower health care costs for those who quit, including the working poor. A 75-cent per pack increase in Kentucky could result in a healthcare savings of nearly a billion dollars that could be better spent on other goods, services, and programs that benefit everyone. Certainly cigarette companies don't care about the welfare of low-income smokers. From 1998 to 2001, they imposed price increases of $1.24 per pack, only about half of which went to pay tobacco settlement costs.

What about the economic well being of our state's tobacco growing farmers? From their point of view, the state excise tax increase will result in less than two-tenths of one percent decline in demand for U.S. burley tobacco.

Kentucky lawmakers have a long history of compassion and commitment to ensure that kids in the state receive the best opportunity possible for a healthy and productive life. From KERA to KIDS NOW, the Kentucky state legislature has consistently been an advocate for our youth. Now more than ever, Kentucky needs additional legislative solutions to the youth smoking problem. For teens like Michael and Leslie who desperately want change, we cannot afford to wait.

Richard Smithers is the founding coordinator of Lexington United for Non-Smokers Guaranteed Space (L.U.N.G.S.).