Before spring break, you might have overlooked an article in the News about a Connecticut high-school student with a simple but powerful plan to save the world. Jessica Adelson doesn’t have an answer to the war in Iraq or a solution to world hunger, but she does have a dream to tackle an even more deadly threat to communities in the United States and around the world: tobacco.
It’s no secret that tobacco kills. Nationwide, smoking-related deaths are close to half a million a year, which is the equivalent of three 9/11’s every single week. Smokers and non-smokers are affected, as Jessica knows firsthand from her family’s experience. What was most surprising to Jessica, however, is why many of her friends in high school, like millions across the country, continue to start smoking this addictive and destructive drug. Despite the overall decline in smoking in past decades, recent data suggest that use among high school students is on the rise.
What do we do to counter this startling trend among teenagers? Jessica offered a simple option to the Connecticut General Assembly: Raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21.
The logic behind this proposed bill isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Tobacco kills more people each year than alcohol, so why should the legal age be any different? Other states, such as New Jersey, have increased the smoking age in recent years, demonstrating that this type of action is feasible. Given the fact that 90 percent of smokers began smoking before the age of 21, the public health potential of such an action is enormous.
Despite this potential, many have voiced criticisms using libertarian arguments of freedom of choice. As soon as the policy was proposed, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company argued that if citizens are old enough to fight for their country, they should be old enough to smoke. Most recently, Patrick Ward wrote in the News that 18- to 20-year-olds are responsible enough to choose whether to smoke and that unnecessary state interference would be an infringement on our personal liberties.
Yet although the decision to smoke is a personal one, it has enormous public consequences in the form of deadly secondhand smoke and an over $70 billion burden on taxpayers. Ward actually admitted that “we accept laws in … cases when they constrain individuals’ actions that would or could harm other people.” Given that tobacco kills as many as 67,500 innocent children and adults every year, it is unacceptable for us not to take stronger action.
We’re fortunate that Connecticut has taken a lead in tobacco control by increasing taxes on cigarettes and by being among the first states to ban smoking in public places. As a result of such policies, Connecticut had the fifth-lowest prevalence of smoking in the U.S. in 2005.
The fight isn’t over, however. About 18 percent of Connecticut high-school students still smoke, which is unacceptably high. We can do better, and politicians of all parties should not be afraid to stand up for what is right.
To be truly effective, however, this fight needs to continue on the national and international levels.
At the same time that Connecticut policymakers consider Jessica’s bill, Congress is making progress on a landmark bill, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, to wrestle control of tobacco from powerful tobacco lobbyists to the Food and Drug Administration. This legislation passed the Senate twice in 2004 by overwhelming bipartisan margins, but it was not enacted into law. Now it’s time to finish the job.
It is an embarrassment to our country that tobacco is one of the least regulated products on the market today. Even dog food manufacturers are required to list their ingredients, but tobacco companies are exempt from listing any of the 4,000 chemicals in cigarettes, including arsenic (rat poison) and formaldehyde. Extending regulatory capacity to the FDA offers an essential step toward taking decisive action against smoking.
Ultimately, however, we will need a more concerted international movement against tobacco. As pressure against tobacco in the U.S. has increased, tobacco companies have simply shifted their markets overseas, peddling their deadly products to the developing world.
There are currently more smokers in China than there are citizens in the United States. Globally, tobacco results in a net loss of $200 billion a year, one-third of which is in the developing world. The World Health Organization’s Framework Convention for Tobacco Control was an important step toward limiting tobacco worldwide, but now we need to make sure all countries ratify this treaty.
While clear solutions are within our reach, change will not be easy. The tobacco industry remains a formidable foe, willing to continue using the ruthless deception displayed so well in the movie “Thank You for Smoking.” Every day, Big Tobacco spends $26.5 million advertising its products and lobbying legislators.
We as citizens may not have the same lobbying clout, but we are fighting the good fight and we can’t give up. Wednesday was the 12th annual National Kick Butts Day organized by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, and advocates across the country mobilized to spread the truth about tobacco and the solutions within our reach. Now it’s time to start kicking butt in Connecticut by making Jessica’s dream for a healthier world a reality.
Robert Nelb is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.