Do spiraling youth smoking rates signify stubborn defiance by Gen-Xersand the Hollywood elite?
By Kelle Walsh
THERE IS A LONGSTANDING belief in Hollywood that art doesn't influence actions; rather, it mirrors the actions of society at large. This premise has long allowed movies to portray gratuitous violence, sex, or alcohol and drug use under the protective guise of "freedom of artistic expression."
But Hollywood's "creative" vice du jour--smoking--may just have gone one step too far.
There was a resounding thud following Gen-X poster gal and actress Winona Ryder's refusal to forego smoking on film when asked by a group of local teens. When Ryder, a Petaluma native and pack-a-day smoker, received a petition last year from a group of Casa Grande High School students asking her to be a responsible role model to kids and not smoke, the reply was swift: Sorry kids, butt out! This is art.
But is it? The argument that Hollywood movies don't influence behavior, even coupled with movie stars' stubborn refusal to accept role-model status, may not be apply in this case. As anti-tobacco activists admit, pop culture's growing re-acceptance of smoking, as witnessed through movies, music videos, and the lifestyle choices of today's young adults, reflects a mind-boggling surge in the popularity of cigarettes, despite concentrated efforts to reduce smoking rates among the nation's youth.
About 34 percent of highschool seniors are smokers, according to a 1996 study by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Among youth in grades 8 through 10, smoking rates are lower (21 to 30 percent), but have increased by as much as 50 percent over the past five years.
Nationally, 3,000 young people become addicted to tobacco daily; in California, an estimated 200 teen-agers between the ages of 12 and 17 become regular smokers each day.
According to studies by the California Department of Health Services, 18 percent of adults smoke, but most young people believe the rate of smoking is much higher than that--a perception health advocates say is fueled by the resurgence of cigarette smoking on screen.
"It creates a social milieu that it's accepted, that everyone is doing it," says Janine Robinette, director of a Bay Area tobacco control program.
"Despite mass education efforts in California, our education efforts confront popular celebrities; the increase in smoking on TV and in movies counters the education efforts in the schools," says Shelly Huff of the American Cancer Society. "You'll find characters like Bruce Willis defusing a bomb with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Or someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he was the president's fitness expert, posing on the cover of magazines with a big cigar in his mouth. That sends contradictory messages to kids. These are their heroes."
IN RESPONSE, the American Cancer Society is circulating a petition, called "Stop the Smoke Screen," that asks the movie industry to stop glamorizing cigarette and cigar smoking in film. "That'll be a hit in their pockets, but we're asking the movie industry to make some responsible decisions regarding that," Huff says.
Researchers say that teenagers who pick up smoking act largely out of peer pressure or rebellion against what their parents, or society, tell them they can't do. But this doesn't explain the surprising rise in smoking among young adults, the over-18 population loosely gathered under the Generation X and Y monikers. These smokers should know better.
"One of the things that is most disturbing is that the percentage of adults smoking went up in 1996," says Robinette. "With everyone talking about [the dangers of smoking], you say, 'How can this be?' The explanation is, it's a rise in the young adults."
No one in their early 20s, or teens, for that matter, can claim ignorance about the dangers of smoking. For years we've been bombarded with increasingly dire warnings about what cigarettes--and more recently snuff and cigars--do to our bodies, our unborn children, and the unfortunate innocents engulfed in our blue haze.
Still, the numbers climb. Almost 28 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds smoke cigarettes, up from 23 percent in 1991. On college campuses, and in bars and coffeehouses throughout the nation, young people defiantly light up and blow smoke in the face of incredulous health professionals and the government, which has made snuffing out youth smoking one of the most urgent missions of our time.
In 1989 California voters passed Proposition 99, a 25-cent tax on cigarettes to fund one of the nation's most aggressive anti-smoking campaigns. On both state and local levels, health programs were established to educate the masses about the health risks involved with tobacco use. Studies were conducted about attitudes toward smoking, and a dynamo advertising campaign hit hard at the tobacco industry's slick, $1.7 million-a-day promotional effort with counteradvertising meant to expose the industry's manipulation of the American public.
"Nicotine Soundbites" featured real footage of the Congressional hearings with CEOs of the major tobacco companies swearing under oath that their products were non-addictive. Another ad highlights the devastating effects of nicotine addiction by showing a middle-aged laryngectomy patient smoking through the breathing hole in her throat.
For a while, the ad campaigns seemed to work. Between 1990 and 1993, smoking rates among California youths remained relatively stable. But in 1994 the rate of smoking among young people increased by 30.8 percent, paralleling national trends. Although last year's figures show a slight decrease in youth smoking (11.6 percent, compared with 11.9 percent in 1995), health educators insist that limiting youth access to tobacco is the best defense against the temptation to smoke.
Toward that goal, local health agencies now work with merchants to change the way they advertise tobacco in their stores, and urge enforcement of fines for selling tobacco to young people--a practice that is illegal in all 50 states, and that in California carries a penalty of up to $7,000.
The result of all these efforts? After years of decline in popularity, cigarettes and now cigars seemingly define a new Zeitgeist. In retro-hip fashion, growing numbers of young people scoff at the warning labels, statistics, and pleas of the health conscious and continue to light up. The phenomenon raises questions about just how far a national campaign can go to influence the behavior of a segment of the population that fiercely harbors its independence.
"If you look at the kinds of risky behavior young people take part in--drugs, drinking, sex--[you can see] they don't have any sense of their own mortality. They're invincible," says Robinette. "They think they'll be able to do this [smoke] for some time, and then kick the habit."
Says 18-year-old Matthew Shifflitt, a Camel smoker since four days before his ninth birthday: "I think [the anti-tobacco campaign is] all a crock of shit. It's a personal choice whether you want to smoke or not." Shifflitt says he wants to quit smoking before he turns 19.
Young adult smokers often share the same story. Most started when they were in their early teens, a result of curiosity or peer influence. Many recall stealing cigarettes from their parents or siblings, or having friends who could support their new habit. And most young smokers say they
don't plan to smoke indefinitely.
"Almost everyone who smokes as a young person says they will only smoke for a couple of years and then quit. What they don't realize is how difficult tobacco can be to quit, how hard it is to use an addictive product for five, six, seven years and then quit," says Colleen Stevens, spokesperson for the California Tobacco Education Media Campaign.
"I sit up at night sometimes, so angry at the tobacco companies for making this product that's so addictive. For the rest of my life I'm gonna have to fight the urge to smoke," says 25-year-old Kiersten McCutchan. A smoker for 10 years, McCutchan quit her pack-a-day habit just two months ago with the help of "the patch," an adhesive strap that helps smokers to kick the habit by regulating and slowly reducing nicotine levels absorbed directly into the bloodstream.
McCutchan, like many young adult smokers, had little concern about her habit into her early 20s. But when smoking started to dull her skin and hair, and leave her winded from common activities like climbing stairs, she tried to stop. Her inability to do so drove home the message that she was hooked. "It makes me mad that I'm addicted to something," she says.
Perhaps it's not so surprising that many young adult smokers say they don't think that cigarettes should be available to kids under age 18. Choosing bad habits should be left to those fully aware of the consequences of that behavior, they say, something not possible when you are 15.
Patricia Macchia, 23, says she's not worried about any health effects from the one or two Marlboro Lights 100s ("in a box") she smokes each day. But she hates to see younger people smoking. "I get mad whenever I see younger kids smoking. If they're underage, 18, I think it's wrong. They need to realize just because they're young, and they think it's an adult thing, it can hurt them. When they grow up, they can decide that."
The seeming dichotomy between knowing something is unhealthy, even discouraging others from doing it, and still engaging in that activity frustrates many anti-smoking advocates. Why would you choose to take up an addictive habit when you know it could, at best, become a monkey on your back, and at worst, kill you?
"It's not about the tobacco, it's about the ritual and the paraphernalia involved with smoking," says cross-country traveler Max Cavallaro, 27. After quitting his job with a New York publishing company three months ago, Cavallaro set out on what might be thought of as a typical preoccupation of his generation: hitting the highway. Smoking goes along with the loner image of a man and his motorcycle against the world, he says. Easy Rider for the '90s? Cavallaro shrugs. "I enjoy stopping my bike, rolling up a cigarette, and sitting back to enjoy a smoke. It gives me something to do."
ACCORDING TO EXPERTS, at least partial responsibility for the new nonchalance about smoking rests squarely on the shoulders of Hollywood. Earlier this year, the American Lung Association pointed out that in all of last year's Oscar-nominated films, at least one lead character was smoking, something not seen in recent memory.
On-screen smoking by the likes of Ryder, Julia Roberts, John Travolta, and Johnny Depp perpetuates the idea that smoking is the thing to do. "Movies are the icons of popular culture. You don't need the smoking to have a movie fly, but having it in there has a huge pro-tobacco influence on these kids. It's not just that everyone is doing it, it's that everyone you want to be is doing it," says University of California San Francisco's School of Medicine professor Dr. Stanton Glantz, a member of the state's Tobacco Education and Research Oversight Committee.
"I don't think that makes young people smoke," counters Megan, a 23-year-old "occasional" smoker. "Peer pressure, being raised in a house where it was allowed, and the kind of personality you have will determine if you smoke. But films are a reflection of a trend, and I don't think they influence. It's also fitting for certain characters. Like in Pulp Fiction, John Travolta's character smokes, but he's also a heroin addict, it worked. And I think it's more unrealistic to have a character say 'No, I don't smoke' if that's the kind of character it is."
But 25-year-old Sean Oliveira says that "all my heroes" smoked in film and on TV when he was growing up. And now, when he sees a movie that has a character smoking, he starts to jones for a cigarette. "Remember Barfly? I walked out of there wanting to smoke so bad," he says.
But it's not only Hollywood fueling the message that being young and hip means lighting up. Women's fashion magazines regularly feature insider photos of top runway models and rock stars partying hard in Euro-hip nightspots, cigs dangling from million-dollar lips. And for the glamour-seeking common folk, cigars have hit the peak of their popularity, with cigar rooms and "humidor societies" popping up in cities all over the country.
This prevalence in tobacco usage seems to indicate a kind of rebellion, a snubbing of conventional wisdom, or as Swingers director Doug Liman told Newsweek, the "act like nothing is socially irresponsible" attitude of the nation's twentysomething set.
It's an attitude that the tobacco industry has wasted no time in exploiting. Engrossing full-page ads of attractive, retro/hipster X-ers scream from the pages of alternative newspapers, which appeal to the "active urban singles who think dailies are irrelevant," according to a recent New York Times article. The Camel Page ("Your highway to urban nightlife") or Marlboro's What to Do, Where to Go promote local music events; both advertisements carry the Surgeon General's warning about the dangers of smoking, and yet cement the association of cigarettes with popular music.
The latest hook used by at least one tobacco company has elevated savvy
marketing to a new level, one that will circumvent changing federal regulations curtailing traditional advertising of cigarettes. In some US cities, RJ Reynolds' Camel Club Program hires fashionable twentysomething clubgoers to mingle and pass out free Camel cigarettes to bar patrons and coffeehouse slackers. It is marketing like this--making your product too accessible to ignore--that allows the tobacco industry to morph right before the eyes of regulators trying to rein it in. Industry observers say it's no surprise that the world's most popular cigarettes--Marlboro, Camel and Newport--are also the most heavily advertised and promoted worldwide.
Even with one foot in the grave, Joe Camel--an icon modeled after James Bond and Don Johnson of "Miami Vice," and targeted by a proposed huge settlement between state attorneys-general and the tobacco industry--remains a powerful testament to the power of advertising. When RJ Reynolds introduced the character in 1988, Camel cigarettes held only one-half of a share of the under-18 market. By 1991, that share value had gone up to 32.8 percent, or $476 million in sales. Camel had shed its image as "an old man's cigarette."
Cigarette manufacturers are spreading their message far and wide, offering lighters, T-shirts, hats, backpacks, towels, and drink insulators emblazoned with the names of cigarette brands. In target markets
abroad, stores like the Salem Power Station record outlets or the Camel
Adventure Gear stores sell popular youth-fashion products bearing
Despite this blitz of advertising--every year the tobacco industry spends $6.1 billion on advertising gimmicks in the United States alone--many young people resist the notion that they are being manipulated by marketing.
"Advertising has nothing to do with [the decision to smoke]," says 15-year-old Robyn Dobbs, who smokes two packs of Marlboros a day. "Your culture is influential and the people who you are around." Most of her friends smoke, she says, as does most of her family.
Cavallaro points to his choice of Drum rolling tobacco as evidence that Joe Camel types have little influence on his decision to smoke. He's not alone. A new adherence to smoking "safer" tobacco products--ones that may be additive-free or somehow perceived as being more natural--is a growing denominator among young smokers who believe they are unaffected by Madison Avenue advertising.
Gotcha again. Winston's latest marketing campaign, "Yours. Ours." hints at the latest strategy to appeal to this audience. Facing full-page ads in magazines and newspapers compare two identical cigarettes propped against white backgrounds with only the words "Yours. 94% tobacco, 6% additives. Ours. 100% tobacco, 0% additives." The effect? The consumer is apparently to believe that these are clean, natural cigarettes, offering a way to smoke healthily.
"It's a scam," scoffs Glantz. "A lot of people think it's the additive that makes the cigarette more dangerous, and there are additives put in cigarettes to increase the addictive potential. But even if they didn't have additives, the most addicting thing in cigarettes is tobacco, and tobacco is like a little toxic bonfire when it burns. They are good marketers," Glantz adds wryly. "They get people to put burning sticks in their mouths."
Meanwhile, young adult smokers may struggle with an addiction and curse the smell of smoke on their clothes and hands, but they stand by their belief that smoking is a personal choice. Keep it from the kids, they say, and pray to God they don't ever start. But you pick your poison, or as 20-year-old smoker Julie Fitch prophesies, "We're very select about our own self-destruction. You know the things that are bad for you, you choose your own demise."
"If I had one wish in the whole world, it wouldn't be that I'd be the richest woman, or the most beautiful," says recovering smoker McCutchan. "It would be that I'd be able to smoke cigarettes without any repercussions on my health, looks, nothing."
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From the Oct. 9-15, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.