D. Dowd Muska


In Defense of Teen Smoking

June 20, 2013

When school’s out for summer, you see them more often.

They’re hanging around the dumpster behind the Circle K, Wawa, or Cumberland Farms. They walking along the railroad tracks, in the part of town where the cops rarely patrol. They’re congregating in that wooded spot near the abandoned factory.

They’re teens. They’re smoking. And we should leave them alone.

A decade and a half ago, if you asked an anti-tobacco activist if there would be a significant number of teen smokers in 2013, he’d have guffawed. Certainly not! State attorneys general negotiated the Master Settlement Agreement, which will stop the targeting of youths and fund cessation programs. We’re sure to be successful in pressuring states to dramatically hike their per-pack taxes, and that will make smoking cost-prohibitive. The feds have finally filed suit, under the RICO Act, and FDA regulation is inevitable. Soon, PSAs produced by hip communications firms will tell Generations X and Y of the hazards of cigarettes. Teen smoking, in 2013? It’ll be too small to measure.

Nanny Staters, meet reality. Last year Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, in a report that tipped the scales at a flimsy 1,395 pages, lamented that “nearly one in four high school seniors is a smoker.”

As Silents and Boomers can attest, in the last six decades, lighting up has declined, bigtime. A Gallup poll conducted last August found that the overall smoking rate had dropped to 20 percent, down from 45 percent in the mid-1950s.

But the youngest cohort has always been the most partial to coffin nails. Just 12 percent of Americans over the age of 65 smoked in 2012, versus 25 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds.

Clearly, the scare-the-hell-out-of-them approach has failed. Young adults understand that cigarettes can kill, but grasp that “victims” die at a glacial pace: Vincent Price (82), Don Knotts (81), Johnny Carson (79), Robert Mitchum (79), Dean Martin (78), Peter Jennings (67), Yul Brynner (65). Even that poor woman presently featured in the CDC’s ubiquitous, and macabre, public-service campaign -- the one with the wig, who speaks via a mechanical larynx -- is in her fifties. Try telling a teenager that he needs to stop a behavior because there’s a chance that it will impact his health in 30 or 40 (or 50 or 60) years.

While unquestionably unsafe over the long term, smoking’s immediate threat to youths is de minimis compared to suicides, homicides, and alcohol-related accidents. (Suicide, for example, is the third-leading cause of death for people in their late teens and early twenties.) Yet many “child” advocates ignore the need to address drunk driving, mental health, and violence. There’s lots of money -- and media attention -- in assaulting “Big Tobacco.”

Ironically, some factoids regularly trotted out by cigarettes’ enemies actually undercut the call for youngsters to blast the butts. The American Lung Association asserts that 12 hours after quitting, the “carbon monoxide level in blood drops to normal,” between two weeks and three months later, the “risk of having a heart attack begins to drop,” at ten years, the “risk of dying from lung cancer is about half that of a smoker’s,” and after 15 years, the “risk of coronary heart disease is the same as that of a nonsmoker.”

Teens complain about nearly everything, but one gripe they seldom launch is having too little time. They believe they’ve got plenty of it, and most of them are correct. If a body can be cleansed of cigarettes’ ill effects in a decade or two, what’s the harm in smoking for a few years at the start of adulthood?

The probability that a given teen smoker will quit well before he enters the danger zone is substantial. Acts of rebellion give way to maturity and responsibility. All manner of deterrents will spring up to put an end to his cigarette use. The dating pool is reduced. Employers frown on their personnel puffing. (Many workplaces are tobacco-free by government decree.) States, as well as the federal government, will continue to raise taxes on cancer sticks. As healthcare shifts entirely to the “public” sector, bureaucrats are likelier to allot limited resources to clean livin’ patients over those who engaged in politically incorrect habits.

A lifetime of troubles awaits teen smokers -- credit-card debt, lousy apartments, lengthy commutes, unreasonable bosses, annoying in-laws, excessive property taxes, 3:00 A.M. diaper changes, promotion pass-overs, mid-life crises, hemorrhoids, menopause, prostate problems, and “senior moments.” Can’t they be allowed some risky fun before real life attacks?

Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, teens.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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