Up In Smoke

There is a scene in the recent hit romantic-comedy My Best Friend's Wedding where Julia Roberts is being driven to the airport to stop the wedding of her best friend Michael, with whom she had made a pact to marry if both were still single at age 28. Roberts, a Gen-Xer of the polished Hollywood brand, chain smokes Marlboros so convincingly during that car ride you wonder if the actress doesn't smoke in real life.It is also at this moment when it occurs to you that watching a lead character smoking as a focal point in a scene is a strangely foreign, yet somehow familiar sight harkening back to the overflowing ashtrays and decanter-in-every-apartment movie-making of the 1970s.As anti-tobacco activists begrudgedly admit, despite Herculean efforts to reduce smoking rates, particularly among the nation's youth, pop-culture's growing re-acceptance of the habit as witnessed through movies, music videos and the lifestyle choices of today's young adults, reflects a mind-boggling surge in the popularity of Public Enemy Number One: cigarettes.Approximately 34 percent of high school seniors are current smokers, according to a 1996 study by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Among grades eight-10, smoking rates are lower (21-30 percent), but have increased by as much as one-half over the past five years.Nationally, 3,000 young people become addicted to tobacco each day, and in California, an estimated 200 teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 daily become regular smokers.Researchers say that teenagers who pick up smoking act largely out of peer influence or rebellion against what their parents, or society at large tells them they can't do. But this doesn't explain the surprising rise in smoking among young adults, the over-18 population loosely defined under the Generation X and Y monikers. Smokers who should know better."One of the things that is most disturbing is that the percentage of adults smoking went up in 1996," says Janine Robinette, director of the Monterey County Health Department's Tobacco Control Program. "With everyone talking about [the dangers of smoking], you say, 'How can this be?' The explanation is it's a rise in the young adults."No one in their early 20s, or teenage years for that matter, can claim ignorance about the dangers of smoking. For years we've been bombarded with increasingly dire warnings about what cigarettes-and more recently snuff and cigars-do to our bodies, our unborn children, and the unfortunate innocents engulfed in our blue haze.Still the numbers climb. Almost 28 percent of 18-24 year olds smoke cigarettes, up from 23 percent in 1991. On college campuses, and in bars and coffeehouses throughout the nation, young people defiantly light up and blow smoke in the face of incredulous health professionals, and the government, which has made snuffing out youth smoking one of the most urgent missions of our time.California voters in 1989 passed Proposition 99, a 25 cent tax on cigarettes to go toward funding one of the nation's most aggressive anti-smoking campaigns. On both state and local levels, health programs were established to educate the masses about the health risks involved with tobacco use. Studies were conducted about attitudes toward smoking, and a dynamo advertising campaign hit hard at the tobacco industry's slick, $1.7 million per-day promotional effort with counter advertising meant to expose the industry's manipulation of the American public."Nicotine Soundbites" featured real footage of the Waxman hearings with CEOs of the major tobacco companies swearing under oath before a Congressional committee that their products were non-addictive. "Debby" highlights the devastating effects of nicotine addiction by showing a 46-year-old laryngectomy patient smoking through the breathing hole in her throat.For a while, the ad campaigns seemed to work. Between 1990 and 1993, smoking rates among California youths remained relatively stable. But in 1994, paralleling national trends, the rate of smoking among young people increased by 30.8 percent. Although last year's figures show a slight decrease in youth smoking (11.6 percent compared with 11.9 percent in 1995), health educators insist that limiting youth access to tobacco is the best defense against the temptation to smoke.Toward that goal, local health agencies work with merchants to change the way they advertise tobacco in their stores, and urge enforcement of fines for selling tobacco to young people -a practice that is illegal in all 50 states, and that in California levies a penalty of up to $7,000. In some communities, youth are made accountable for their part in under-age smoking. In Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel, for example, minors caught in possession of tobacco can be sentenced to up to 30 hours of community service and fined $30.The result of all these efforts? After years of decline in popularity, cigarettes and now cigars seemingly define a new Zeitgeitz. In retro-hip fashion, growing numbers of young people are scoffing at the warning labels, statistics and pleas of the health conscious and continuing to light up.The phenomenon raises questions about just how far a national campaign can go to influence the behavior of a segment of the population which fiercely harbors its independence."If you look at the kinds of risky behavior young people take part in, drugs, drinking, sex, [you can see] they don't have any sense of their own mortality. They're invincible," says Monterey County's Robinette. "They think they'll be able to do this [smoke] for some time, and then kick the habit.""I think [the anti-tobacco campaign is] all a crock of shit. It's a personal choice whether you want to smoke or not," says 18-year-old Matthew Shifflitt, a Camel smoker since four days before his ninth birthday, who says he wants to quit smoking before he turns 19.Young adult smokers often share the same story. Most started when they were in their early teens, a result of curiosity or peer influence. Many recall stealing cigarettes from their parents or siblings, or having friends who could do so to support their new habit. And most young smokers say they don't plan to smoke indefinitely."Almost everyone who smokes, as a young person, says they will only smoke for a couple of years and then quit. What they don't realize is how difficult tobacco can be to quit, how hard it is to use an addictive product for five, six, seven years and then quit," says Colleen Stevens, spokesperson for the California Tobacco Education Media Campaign. "I sit up at night sometimes, so angry at the tobacco companies for making this product that's so addictive. For the rest of my life I'm gonna have to fight the urge to smoke," says 25-year-old University of California Santa Cruz journalism student Kiersten McCutchan. A smoker for 10 years, McCutchan quit her pack-a-day habit just two months ago with the help of the "patch," an adhesive strap that helps smokers to kick the habit by regulating and slowly reducing nicotine levels that are absorbed directly into the bloodstream.McCutchan, like many young adult smokers, had little concern about her habit into her early 20s. But when smoking started to notably affect her appearance, dulling her skin and hair, and leaving her winded from common activities like climbing stairs, she tried to stop. Her inability to do so just drove home the message that she was hooked. "It makes me mad that I'm addicted to something," she says. Perhaps its not so surprising that many young adult smokers say they don't think that cigarettes should be available to kids under age 18. Choosing bad habits should be left to those fully aware of the consequences of that behavior, they say, something not possible when you are 15. Teenagers who hang out on Alvarado Plaza in Monterey call Jeremy Wise "the Grandfather." At 23, Wise is the voice of experience for some local youths as they navigate their way through the dangerous lifestyle choicesadolescen ce offers. "We have a rule down there," he says motioning to the Plaza, "that if they [smokers] are under 15, don't give them any more than three cigarettes."If they smoke, fine, but I don't want them smoking a lot of cigarettes off the bat because they are still young and still growing." The seeming dichotomy between knowing something is bad for you, even discouraging others from doing it, and still engaging in that activity frustrates many anti-smoking advocates. Why would someone choose to take up an addictive habit when they know it could, at best, become a monkey on your back, and at worst, kill you?"It's image, why else would people take up this habit? Really, when you taste a cigarette for the first time, does anyone like it? It's all about image, there is no other advantage to smoking," says Lynn Schiffman of the American Lung Association of the Central Coast."It's not about the tobacco, it's about the ritual and the paraphernalia involved with smoking," says 27-year-old cross-country traveler Max Cavallaro. After quitting his job with a New York publishing company three months ago, Cavallaro set out on what might be thought of as a typical preoccupation of his generation, hitting the highway. Smoking goes along with the loner image of a man and his motorcycle against the world, he says. Easy Rider for the '90s? Cavallaro shrugs. "I enjoy stopping my bike, rolling up a cigarette and sitting back to enjoy a smoke. It gives me something to do."According to experts, at least partial responsibility for the new nonchalance about smoking rests squarely on the shoulders of Hollywood. Earlier this year, the American Lung Association pointed out that in all of last year's Oscar nominated films, at least one lead character was smoking, something not seen in recent memory.On-screen smoking by the likes of Julia Roberts, John Travolta, Winona Ryder or Johnny Depp, who appeal to young audiences, drive the idea that smoking is the thing to do. "Movies are the icons of popular culture. You don't need the smoking to have a movie fly, but having it in there has a huge pro-tobacco influence on these kids. It's not just that everyone is doing it, it's everyone you want to be doing it," says University of California San Francisco's School of Medicine professor Dr. Stanton Glantz, a member of the state's Tobacco Education and Research Oversight Committee."It's definitely not the skid row type [who is smoking in the movies]. It's definitely the more upbeat, better educated individual in a lead role. And there was very little tobacco use by any other than lead characters," adds Theresa Stockwell, a project director with the Central Coast Tobacco-Free Regional Project who has authored a yet-to-be released report on the incidence of smoking in contemporary cinema.Experts say that the prevalence of smoking in movies leads to inflated perceptions about both the use and acceptance of tobacco within society. "It creates a social milieu that it's excepted, that everyone is doing it. The teen perception that people are smoking a lot more than they are, I think, is because they are surrounded by it, they think it's normal and that its accepted that everyone is doing it," says Robinette."In California, 18 percent of adults smoke, but most young people believe the percent of smoking is way higher than that," adds Stevens. But it's not only Hollywood that fuels the message that being young and hip means lighting up. Women's fashion magazines regularly feature insider photos of top runway models and rock stars partying hard in Euro-hip nightspots, cigs dangling from million-dollar lips. And for the glamour-seeking common folk, cigars have hit the peak of their popularity, with cigar rooms and "humidor societies" popping up in cities all over the country.This prevalence in tobacco usage seems to indicate a kind of rebellion, a snubbing of conventional wisdom, or as Swingers director Doug Liman told Newsweek, the "act like nothing is socially irresponsible" attitude of the nation's twentysomething set.It's an attitude that the tobacco industry has wasted no time in exploiting. Engrossing full page ads of attractive, retro/hipster Xers scream from the pages of alternative newspapers, which appeal to the "active urban singles who think dailies are irrelevant," according to a recent New York Times article. Advertisements promoting local music events like the Camel Page ("Your highway to urban nightlife") or Marlboro's What to Do, Where to Go both carry the Surgeon General's warning about the dangers of smoking, and yet serve to cement the association of cigarettes with popular music.The latest hook used by at least one tobacco company has elevated savvy marketing to a new level-one that will circumvent changing federal regulations curtailing traditional advertising of cigarettes. In some US cities, RJ Reynolds' Camel Club Program hires fashionable twentysomething clubgoers to mingle and pass out free Camel cigarettes to bar patrons and coffee-house slackers. It is marketing like this, making your product too accessible to ignore, that allows the tobacco industry to morph right before the eyes of regulators trying to rein it in. Industry observers say it's no surprise that the most popular cigarettes-Marlboro, Camel and Newport-are also the most heavily advertised and promoted worldwide.Even with one foot in the grave, Joe Camel, an icon modeled after James Bond and Don Johnson of "Miami Vice" remains a powerful testament to the power of advertising. When RJ Reynolds introduced the character in 1988, Camel cigarettes shared only a one-half share of the under 18 market. By 1991, that share value had gone up to 32.8 percent, or $476 million in sales. Camel had shed its image as "an old man's cigarette." Increasingly, cigarette manufacturers are spreading the message of their products far and wide. Lighters, T-shirts, hats, backpacks, towels and drink insulators carry the names of cigarette brands. In target markets abroad, stores like the Salem Power Station record outlets or the Camel Adventure Gear stores sell popular youth-fashion products bearing brand-name logos.Yet despite this blitz of advertising-the tobacco industry annually spends $6.1 billion on advertising gimmickry in the United States alone-many young people resist the notion that they are being manipulated by marketing."Advertising has nothing to do with [the decision to smoke]," says 15-year-old Robyn Dobbs of Pacific Grove, a two-pack a day Marlboro smoker. "Your culture is influential and the people who you are around." Most of her friends smoke, she says, as does most of her family.Cavallaro points to his choice of Drum rolling tobacco as evidence that Joe Camel or the like have little influence on his decision to smoke. He's not alone. A new adherence to smoking "safer" tobacco-one that may be additive-free or somehow perceived as being more natural-is a growing denominator among young smokers who believe they are unaffected by Madison Avenue-type advertising.Winston's latest marketing campaign, "Yours. Ours." hints at the latest strategy to appeal to this audience. Facing full-page ads featured in the alternative press compare two identical cigarettes propped against white backgrounds with only the words "Yours. 94% tobacco, 6% additives. Ours. 100% tobacco, 0% additives." The effect? Clean, natural cigarettes offer you a way to smoke healthily."It's a scam," scoffs Glantz. "A lot of people think it's the additive that makes the cigarette more dangerous, and there are additives put in cigarettes to increase the addictive potential. But even if they didn't have additives, the most addicting thing in cigarettes is tobacco, and tobacco is like a little toxic bonfire when it burns. "They are good marketers," Glantz adds wryly, "they get people to put burning sticks in their mouths."While an advertisement in a magazine or cigarette sponsorship of a favorite band may not directly compel someone to smoke, industry analysts say having the Marlboro logo, for instance, constantly in our line of sight allows cigarettes to remain a familiar element of our social landscape. And this, perhaps, is the best advertising of all."Nobody wants to believe advertising influences them to do anything. But with both the advertising and other things, when the 'cool' kids are smoking in the movies, for example it subtly goes into their subconscious, it permeates every facet of our lives so that people start to think its normal to smoke," says Stevens.The rules of the new tobacco regulations are still being hammered out, but some attempts to break through this cloud of smoke wafting through every strata of society will surely be made. Advertising within 1,000-feet of schools is banned, and so probably will be cigarette company sponsorship of sporting events. Print advertising will become limited to "tombstone" graphics, eliminating the appeal of seeing idealized "action" peers smoking butts, or the need for Joe Camel et al.And states are getting involved too. In January of 1998, bars in California will go smoke-free as the result of a controversial resolution that has been held up in the legislature for the past two years.Anti-tobacco advocates hope these efforts will reverse the trend of youth smoking once and for all. But some experts say that the best way to keep young people from smoking-the best defense if the goal is to reduce the rate of smoking in society as a whole- is to take the focus off youth smoking. A report of the state's Tobacco Education and Research Oversight Committee urged California to get back on track with the campaign it started with Prop. 99. "In the early years of California's Tobacco Control Program, the state conducted the largest and most aggressive campaign in the world and dramatically accelerated the rate of decline in tobacco consumptionŠ" the report reads.It continues: "However, as funds were increasingly diverted from health education and research into medical services and the program's media campaign was focused narrowly on youth, the rate of decline of tobacco use leveled off. In 1996, adult smoking prevalence rose."Glantz, who sits on the board that prepared the report of the state's Tobacco Control Program, says that the key to combating tobacco's influence is to treat smoking as a problem at all levels, not just for youth. "It was a direct frontal assault on the tobacco industry. Ads, TV and radio, and the campaign was a general market campaign. What it said to kids was 'Society is rejecting tobacco,' and since kids want to be adults, it worked."Advertising aimed at people in their young 20s is the optimal way to reach teenagers. The tobacco industry is presenting smoking as a way to look grown up," Glantz says. "That's why all of this restricting direct access to kids doesn't work in the long run. That's exactly the way the tobacco industry wants it. [It] makes kids want to rebel."As for decreasing cigarette rates among the twentysomethings themselves, restrictions on smoking in bars may help. But polls conducted about American attitudes toward smoking show that even while we don't want young people to pick up the habit, and we don't want someone else's smoking to affect us, we don't think it should be banned, either. Nearly 90 percent of ex-smokers, and 80 percent of nonsmokers oppose a total ban on cigarettes, according to a 1995 poll."The ban is a difficult issue. You can't ban someone from making a movie that has smoking in it, but I also see a lot of people who don't see how they contribute to things that aren't good for people, but are," says Robinette."To a certain degree it is part of the growing up process," says Stockwell, "but let our youth benefit from our own experience so they don't have to go through it. Some kids are going to have to figure it out their own way, but if we make that behavior more difficult to engage in, if we help even one person avoid the health problems associated with smoking, it's probably worth the effort."Meanwhile, young adult smokers may struggle with an addiction and curse the smell of smoke on their clothes and hands, but they stand by their belief that smoking is a personal choice. Keep it from the kids, they say, and God pray they don't ever start. But you pick your poison, or as 20-year-old smoker Julie Fitch prophecies, "We're very select about our own self-destruction. You know the things that are bad for you, you choose your own demise.""If I had one wish in the whole world, it wouldn't be that I'd be the richest woman, or the most beautiful," says UCSC's McCutchan, "it would be that I'd be able to smoke cigarettes without any repercussions on my health, looks, nothing."

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