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FDA: Kiss Those Kiddie-Flavored Cigarettes Goodbye

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Friday, September 25, 2009

It's hard to argue with the FDA's decision, announced this week, to ban the sale of flavored cigarettes. To be honest, I always thought cigarettes came in regular and menthol, not chocolate and strawberry. The legislation passed earlier this year giving the FDA authority over tobacco products specifically authorized it to ban flavored cigarettes, while protecting the kind that I got hooked on.

The justification for the ban is that the cigarette companies have been using kiddie flavors, like they've used cartoon characters, to appeal to teenagers. The tobacco industry faces unique challenges given that so many of its best customers die if they don't quit, which makes replacing them with new smokers an economic necessity, whatever anyone says. And studies have found that 17-years-olds are at least three times more likely to be puffing on fun-flavored cigarettes than are those over 25.

"These flavored cigarettes are a gateway for many children and young adults to become regular smokers," FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, M.D., explained Tuesday.

It sounds like a major step until you read the fine print: The biggest tobacco companies don't even make these cigarettes; the folks who did, seeing the handwriting on the wall, had pretty much stopped after Congress acted; and the ban doesn't touch menthol, the most popular flavor.

So will banning flavored cigarettes that made up some 1 percent of the market stop teenagers from opening the door to addiction?

I wouldn't bet on it.

Smoking is stupid. Nearly half a million people die every year from smoking-related illnesses. Almost 50,000 of those are people whose only exposure to smoke was second-hand. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in this country.

Which doesn't seem to mean a lot to teenagers and young adults, especially girls, who start smoking to be cool or lose weight or find something to do with their hands when they're nervous.

I started at 15 and quit at 33. I tremble every time I have a chest X-ray. I lost my best friend to lung cancer, and she didn't smoke. The woman I am closest to, who has helped me raise my children for the past 20 years, is being treated for lung cancer, and she didn't smoke. Among the many things I would do differently in my life if I had to do it over again, one of the first would be not to cough my way through my first pack of Marlboros.

But that's me the grownup talking. When I was 15, I didn't worry about getting emphysema or cancer or heart disease. I worried about my father getting sick. I begged him to stop smoking; his cough terrified me. He half-tried a few times and stopped smoking in the house, but he never really quit. By the time I started, he'd given up trying not to. He died at 53.

And that was not, I should add, enough to get me to quit for another 10 years.

Mortality isn't much fun to contemplate. Luckily for them, most young people don't. Even when you lose someone you love to cigarettes, as I did with my father, you can completely convince yourself that it has nothing to do with you. From the perspective of a 20-year-old, 53 looks very far away. Until it isn't.

In a recent speech, President Obama sought to enlist young people in the fight for health care reform, relying on a University of Michigan study that, based on past experience, found that upward of 40 percent of all Americans would lose health insurance coverage in the next 10 years.

The Joe Wilson wannabe I was debating on television that day kept attacking the president for using a bad study as a scare tactic, although he never could say what was wrong with the study. As far as I could tell, the study was just fine. The real problem was that it wasn't a very good scare tactic because young people -- who are among those most likely to lose health insurance when they age off their parents' plan and those least likely to find the kind of jobs that provide coverage -- don't get scared about their health. If they did, you wouldn't need to ban chocolate cigarettes, because no one would be buying them.

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