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Tobacco's Big Lie

By Jimmy Carter

Every president since Dwight Eisenhower has had to decide what to do about tobacco. For President Clinton, the time to decide has arrived in the form of a Food and Drug Administration proposal to protect children from tobacco addiction.

I know the president is deeply concerned about the increase in tobacco use among children and that he is considering how to combat it. I also know from personal experience the unique pressure that can be brought to bear on a president by the tobacco industry. During my administration, the industry used its power and persuasion to argue, just as it doing today, that it could be trusted not to market cigarettes to children.

Like many public officials at that time, I believed the industry could be persuaded to behave responsibly, that the problem of smoking by young people was diminishing, and that smoking was primarily a matter of choice rather than addiction.

Today I know better. I know that tobacco is a powerfully addictive substance that kills more Americans than alcohol, illegal drugs, car and airplane crashes, homicide, suicide, fires and AIDS combined. I know that the tobacco industry cannot be trusted to protect our children. And I know that tobacco use by children is going up, not down. The latest data show smoking among eighth-graders rose 30% between 1991 and 1994.

My own generation already has been devastated by diseases caused by tobacco. I lost my mother, father and all my siblings to cancer. My father was given free cigarettes as a World War I soldier and later shared the habit with his wife; my brother and sisters began smoking as teen-agers. The debate is now about whether we will allow today's young people to suffer the same fate.

There have been many lost opportunities to impose reasonable rules of conduct on the tobacco industry. In every case, cigarette manufacturers have escaped by promising to curb teen-age smoking through their own efforts. As soon as the threat of effective restrictions has passed, they have continued to market their products to America's children.

The pattern began more than 40 year ago, in 1954, when the tobacco industry declared to the American public in full-page advertisements: "We accept an interest in people's health as a basic responsibility, paramount to every other consideration in our business." That concern soon evaporated along with the threat of regulation.

Again in 1965, tobacco companies adopted a voluntary cigarette-advertising code as part of their public relations response to the first surgeon general's report. The code was ignored by the industry and failed to protect children, but succeeded in avoiding government regulation of tobacco advertising.

Despite these and other promises, the industry has know but has concealed the truth about the addiction and disease caused by its products. We know from company documents that secret studies of nicotine were conducted and that one company even tracked hyperactive third-graders as prospective customers!

Now, as the FDA prepares to take action to protect children, tobacco companies have launched another political campaign in which they solemnly pledge to take action against smoking by minors. Once again, they say voluntary tobacco industry programs, not government oversight, are the answer to the youth-smoking epidemic our nation is experiencing. We must not be tricked again. If history has taught us anything, it is that this industry must be judged by its 40-year record, not by its promises to protect the health of our children.

It is time we recognized the need for a comprehensive approach that includes eliminating advertising and marketing that appeal to children, reducing the ease with which children obtain tobacco, funding public education campaigns designed by health experts and not the tobacco industry, and overseeing tobacco manufacturing to ensure that nicotine and other ingredients are not manipulated to enhance addiction and that hundreds of additives in cigarettes do not contribute to the risks of smoking. Only a strong agency such as the FDA is capable of implementing such a program.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that 3,000 teen-agers become regular smokers every day and that almost 1,000 of them eventually will die of diseases caused by smoking.

At the same time, the tobacco industry spends more than $6 billion per year on advertising, including the marketing of Joe Camel, Marlboro Adventure Gear giveaways and other cigarette promotions designed for children.

Given all that we know, the scientific case for protecting children from tobacco is indisputable. The moral imperative to act is overwhelming. Public support for government action is strong and grows with every new revelation of tobacco industry deception.

This is not a Democratic or a Republican issue. It is a bipartisan, pro-child, pro-family, pro-health issue. Politicians of both parties understand that to oppose protection of children from tobacco is to be on the wrong side of history.

If the tobacco companies win, our children lose.

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