Protect the children

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has been given new powers by Congress to regulate anti-smoking efforts in the United States. One of the first public examples of its new authority is an up to $600 million advertising campaign designed to reach the most vulnerable to smoking’s suicidal appeals—children ages 12-17. And it intends to target those children by appealing not to their inquisitive, agile minds but to their vanity.

There are a couple of ways to look at that. First, it would be great if our government had the respect for our youth to make a convincing intellectual argument. Second, the government is right to recognize that intellectual arguments are ineffective against addictions. Third, entities that base their arguments on the way they wish things would be, instead of the way things are, fail.

So kudos to the FDA for going for effectiveness rather than “political” objectivity and wishful thinking. Cigarettes may kill only up to 440,000 people a year, but it makes tens of millions look like morons. Research shows that if people don’t start smoking before they’re 26, they will never start. And while statistics vary, if they do start, something in the neighborhood of three out of four will die smokers.

The ad campaign will target tobacco’s short-term effects, like rotting gums and causing teeth discoloration and loss. It will talk about how smoking causes minute wrinkles in the skin around the eyes and around the lips, causing the appearance of premature aging. It will go after fragile egos by conflating cigarettes with bullies, suggesting that cigarettes cause that same loss of control and low self esteem.

One thing these ads can’t do is overcome the rebellious nature of the act of smoking: “This is my life—you can’t tell me what to do.” Children who want to act like adults—or adults who want to act like children—have no easier method than to do the things that adults do that children are legally forbidden to do. And the only way to attack that is to establish connections between the drug nicotine and the people who actually use it so that young people will look elsewhere to express their individuality, because who is it who smokes? The willfully ignorant, the erectilely dysfunctional, those who can’t control their lives, the smelly, the unattractive—basically your average human beings.

And teenagers who take up smoking want to appear anything but average. They want the flip side of what smoking represents, the aspects they believe the behavior bestows on them—coolness, dangerousness, hipness, boldness.

As the United States moves forward in the war against this killing substance, we need to fully recognize that the battles should be fought not on the fields of how we wish things were—that people would quit smoking through intellectual persuasion—but into realms of self-preservation, exclusion and prohibition of smoking in public places.

And the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno, that bastion of intellectualism, will be a great place to start.