Monday, September 25, 2000

Smoke-free schools

Joe Camel is no longer Joe Cool. According to a recent survey of more than 15,000 students conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), high-school smoking has finally begun to decline. On the rise for most of the 90s, the percentage of teens who light up has gone from 36.4 in 1997 to 34.8 in 1999. That’s a whopping one and six-tenths of a child out of 100 now refusing to follow in the Marlborough Man’s footsteps. We are to feel enthused about this.

Well, it is the first time the total number of smokers has gone down instead of up, anyway. But there's some variation in those statistics. The number fell in overall totals. It fell at a greater rate for black students (22.7 percent to 19.7) than for white students (39.7 percent to 38.6 percent). It fell the most for freshmen, who were 17 percent less likely to be smoking in the boy’s room. But seniors in high school are actually smoking more--a rise of 39.6 percent to 42.8 percent. And the kids who are smoking are smoking more; the number who smoke 20 out of 30 days has risen by a third in the past decade.

So does this overall decline mean anything? And if so, what? The government, whose goal is to halve the number of high-school smokers by 2010 (why not wipe smoking out altogether? If you’re going to have a goal, why not have a big goal?) would like to think that any decline is due to all the education programs it’s been running. All that money spent must be making some difference, right? But analysts also credit the rise in the cost of cigarettes, and that seems more on the mark to me. All those incoming, allowance-dependent frosh can’t afford the habit, but by the time they’re seniors, with lucrative after-school jobs in the food-service industry, they have money to burn, so to speak.

The answer then, clearly, is to keep raising cigarette prices until they are out of reach of the average fast-food slinger. Then you’ll see teen smoking plummet (and convenience-store thefts rise, no doubt). Alternatively, adjust the educational programs to include endless replays of the recent tobacco settlement commercials being paid for by the tobacco companies. You know, the ones where they outline what good, law-abiding citizens they are and how they aren’t going to do bad things anymore. How they’re dropping funky ads and paying for boring education. Can you imagine anything more uncool? Would any self-respecting teen want to ally themselves with those bozos? Your average juice commercial is more hip.

Can you see it now--a generation of teens hooked on Gatorade? Tell the CDC to get ready.

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