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Op-Ed: Tobacco Companies to Teens: "Don't Smoke!" (Wink, Wink)

It had to be my imagination.

I thought cigarette smoking was a dying pastime—no pun intended.

But all around us—young smokers. Lots and lots of them. Teens and young adults, and college kids.

At sidewalk cafes near any university, including UNM. In hookah bars, puffing away. Environmentally conscious alterna-kids in Rage Against the Machine t-shirts— the last ones you’d expect to support Big Tobacco.

A whole new, wholly unexpected generation of addicts.

After a decade of a sharp decline in young people smoking, something’s changed – and it’s bad.

Today, over 18 percent of college kids smoke cigarettes.  And there’s an increase in the use of smokeless tobacco and cigars among teens.

How can this be?

We know anti-smoking ads work -- especially if they show former smokers with missing jaws and holes in their throats.

But in these desperate times, states aren’t spending much on smoking prevention. They’re using the money they get from the Big Tobacco settlement of 1998 for other things.

Last year, New Mexico got $138 million from the settlement and tobacco taxes but spent only $6 million on smoking prevention, a quarter of the CDC recommendation for our state.

Meanwhile, tobacco companies are targeting kids like never before. The industry’s survival depends on it. If you’re not addicted before your early 20s, you likely never will be. 

Much of the $13 billion a year they spend on marketing goes toward offering cigarettes at reduced prices young people can afford.

They’ve created grape- and cherry-flavored mini-cigars, which taste like candy, and flavored toothpicks and breath mints laced with nicotine, and spit-free chewing tobacco.

They’re required to broadcast ads urging kids not to smoke. But instead of smokers with missing body parts, these ads have really uncool kids spouting silly stuff like, “Tobacco is whacko!”

In contrast, cigarettes ads have sexy smokers urging you to fight authority by lighting up.

The result?

In New Mexico, over 2,000 kids a year under 18 become daily cigarette smokers. In our high schools, 23 percent of boys and 16 percent of girls smoke cigarettes, and 15 percent of boys use smokeless tobacco. Eleven percent of high school girls in New Mexico smoke cigars!

You can say it’s none of the government’s business.

But New Mexico spends $461 million a year on healthcare costs related to smoking.

You can say it’s free choice.

But candy-flavored mini-cigars? You can’t seriously claim they’re for anyone but kids.

Ban flavored cigars and other sneaky products aimed at hooking children.

Use more of the tobacco settlement money for effective prevention programs.

The battle isn’t over. We need to outsmart the tobacco companies. Our kids deserve it.

Elaine McArdle is an award-winning journalist, book author, and lawyer who’s been writing about the law, politics, health, and many other topics for the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and others for over 20 years. She recently moved to Albuquerque from Boston.

Watcha Phillip-Morris anti-smoking ad.

Watch a truth.com anti-smoking ad.

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