Mixed Smoke Signals

Tired of being dragged into court by every wheezing ex-smoker who latches on to a lawyer, tobacco companies are fighting back. At this very moment, a federal judge is considering the tobacco industry's request for a court order barring tough new regulations by the Food and Drug Administration.Somewhere, U.S. District Judge William Osteen Sr. stares off into space with dead eyes, contemplating the awful notion that eventually he must side with either the tobacco industry or the FDA. Miracle On 34th Street this ain't. As expected, with such a hot button issue as teenage smoking, the arguments in the February 10 hearing were shrill, even ugly at times. The tobacco industry accused the FDA of maneuvering for a total ban on cigarettes. The FDA countered with photos of the tobacco industry wearing Bruno Magli shoes.This court battle was initially sparked in August 1995 when President Clinton authorized the FDA to regulate how cigarettes are sold and marketed, in an effort to curb underage smoking.At first glance, seems like a good plan. Once the stricter regs go into effect that will eradicate forever the surly gangs of teenagers that roam the malls and loiter in the fast food joints, wearing jewelry in their eyebrows and pants so baggy they could double as circus tents while puffing away like tramp steamers. Once it's strictly against the law and outside the societal norm, no clear thinking teen would dare try to buy a pack of Marlboros.On the surface, that would seem to be the case. But let's scratch deeper.Teenagers smoke for two reasons. First, they think it will make them appear older. And they're right. Yellow teeth and a phlegm producing cough are sure signs of maturity.Second, it helps them carve out that all-important rebel without a clue identity. Now, by pitting the entire federal government against teens who smoke (and the Convenient Store Clerks Who Love Them), we have upped the ante considerably. We have stamped cigarettes as certifiably and undeniably cool. Or 'bomb', as the young guttersnipe are wont to say between drags.That's a fat fish to dangle in front of a group starved for peer approval. Even kids who don't smoke will want to keep a pack stashed in their school locker or in the most secretive, Mom-repellent hiding place in their room at home, just to impress their friends. "Look, dude, you're talking to a criminal! I'm, like, so America's Most Wanted. I think I'm even under surveillance by the FTD."Smoking binds teens in a tarry group, provides them with a twisted sense of purpose, a ritual. Making cigarettes less visible only adds to the heavy lidded sexuality of smoking. Coffin nails will become more alluring and as easy to find as always. Stores can require two forms of ID. Chastity belts can be installed on vending machines. It won't make a difference. Kids will go back to the old fashioned way of getting their smokes. They'll pay a wino to buy them.The President and the anti-smoking factions are right on one count. The only sure fire way to eliminate teenage smoking is to force tobacco companies to alter how cigarettes are marketed. But contrary to mainstream thought, they should not stop advertising designed to appeal to children. They should instead be forced to advertise to younger children, say 10 and under.The very notion of smoking will then become abhorrent to teenagers. Hard to imagine a crusty, scowling skateboard jockey bellying up to the counter of a quickie mart, fake ID at the ready and in his huskiest voice asking for a pack of My Little Pony Menthols.No self respecting 15 year old would be caught dead buying a carton of Power Ranger Non-filters or Winnie the Pooh Slims. The President is right about doing away with Joe Camel. But he should be replaced with Tickle Me Elmo Camel.Take cigarette advertising out of publications like Spin and Rolling Stone but then stick it in Ranger Rick and Highlights. What a perfect Goofus and Gallant segment. "Before Gallant kisses his girlfriend, he takes a refreshing hit of breath spray. And once the makeout session begins he keeps his eyes politely closed and doesn't overdo it with a busy tongue. Before Goofus kisses his 'girlfriend' he usually has to reassure her again and again that he's not a cop. And his breath smells like a bus station ashtray."Cold turkey will become a teen epidemic. Nicotine patches shaped like Pogs will sweep the land. Pink freshly scrubbed lungs will be as fashionable as 70s kitsch and tribal tattoos.Of course, the obvious flaw in this plan is that the pre-school set will soon be craving smokes to make them seem older. But they're easier to control than teenagers. Plant them in front of a Disney video and they'll soon forget.Besides, none of the small fry have $2 for a pack of Big Bird Longs.

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