State and Federal governments are eagerly passing anti-tobacco legislation. They claim noble motives; they're doing it to "Protect The Children." (When they use that phrase you can actually hear the capital letters.) They brush off the fact that it will transfer huge amounts of money from smokers' pockets into their own as an unfortunate side effect.
Teen smoking can only be curbed by addressing the real reason teens smoke: Smoking is cool. It is so cool that non-smoking teens who hang around smoking teens are affected by second hand hand coolness. Everything the government is doing, from condemning smoking to raising taxes to enforcing age limits makes smoking more cool, not less.
The only way to reduce teen smoking is to make it less cool. Congress, the least cool people on the planet, need to understand cool before they can remove it from cigarettes.
Some things are cool for no apparent reason. Sunglasses are cool, and Wayfarer sunglasses are the coolest because, well, because they are. But most cool things share three common characteristics: they're dangerous, they annoy parents, authority figures and busybodies, and they are done/used/worn by cool people. Smoking shares every one of these traits, and will remain cool until each factor is reduced or eliminated.
Everyone knows smoking is dangerous. Removing just a little of the danger will remove much of the cool. When we teach kids that smoking causes cancer, heart desease, and emphysema, only the bravest (coolest) kids dare to smoke. We can remove much of the daring-do by reporting the health effects more accurately. Smoking doesn't cause these diseases, it simply increases the risk of getting them. Sure, it increases the risk substantially, but there's no guarantee that smoking will lead to a slow, painful death. Everyone knows someone who smoked two packs a day and lived to a ripe old age. Old age is very uncool among teenagers. So instead of teaching that smoking causes these diseases, let's be more accurate and say smoking increases your risk of getting them.
Removing the coolness factor of annoying parents, authority figures, and busybodies will be more difficult.
Parents, talking to your kids about the dangers of smoking is almost an invitation to light up. Your disapproval makes it cool. Fortunately, there are other methods of discouraging your kids from starting or encouraging them to quit.
Every teenager knows their parents were never cool, so if you used to smoke in your teens tell your kids about it as often as possible. If you still smoke, do it in front of your kids at every opportunity, preferably while listening to oldies tunes they hate. If you really want to make your kids fling their smokes away in disgust, dance. In one recent study 80% of the teenage smokers tested quit immediately after a single exposure to the sight of their parents smoking and dancing The Swim to Woolly Bully. (Note: Do not try to enhance the effect by wearing bellbottoms, as they are now, frighteningly, considered cool among teens.)
Authority figures should just shut up about the subject. It's hard to imagine anyone less cool than former FDA chief David Kessler, his eyes full of righteous indignation and magnified by the world's dorkyest looking coke-bottle glasses. Every time he made a public statement about tobacco thousands of kids started smoking in a desperate attempt to be as unlike him possible.
Busybodies present a special challenge. Normal people achieve self-assurance by accomplishing things. Busybodies can only feel important by looking down on others. Any attempt to discourage their interference in other people's lives is doomed to fail. Without others to look down on, click their tongues at, and inspire their angry letters to Congress their lives would have no meaning.
We can't stop them, but perhaps we can change the target of their wrath. Using commercials, emotional appeals, distorted and fabricated statistics, gross photographs, and anything else except real facts (which they despise and ignore) let's convince them that people who don't recognize the rights of animals are even more evil than smokers. Animal rights activists are always overjoyed to find others silly enough to join their cause. Their twisted statistics are even goofier than those used by anti-tobacco nannies. There are far more carnivores than smokers, giving the busybodies more people to despise. As an added bonus, if they do it right and become vegetarians, there will be more burgers for the rest of us.
The last, most important and most difficult trait to deal with is cool people smoking. We can't stop them, but we can counter it by showing un-cool people smoking. We should start with the aforementioned David Kessler. Just as his preaching caused kids to start smoking, watching him light up a Marlboro would cause thousands of kids to quit immediately. Tens of thousands would quit if they saw Michael Bolton with a cigarette. And we could make every teenager in the country gag with disgust at the thought of smoking if we could just get one particular celebrity to endorse the habit. It would be difficult, as he considers himself a fitness guru, but perhaps we could convince him to do it for the kids:
"Hi, I'm Richard Simmons, and smoking made me the man I am today!"
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© 1999 Dave Hitt
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