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April 24, 1999
Column #921


     The landscape of America changed on Thursday.  All billboard advertising cigarettes came down, including a huge vinyl sign in Times Square promoting Kool Natural cigarettes that slid down ''like an old curtain,'' as The New York Times put it.  It was the successor of a more famous Camel billboard that used to blow huge smoke rings over the Great White Way.

     In Hollywood, a 64-foot-high cutout of the Marlboro Man who loomed over Sunset Strip, went into retirement. So did tens of thousands of billboards across America. In their place anti-smoking billboards are supposed to go up.

     Some might view this change with nostalgia.  Not me.   I see the change as a step toward better American health.
     Consider Scripture: ''Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own. You were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body (I Cor. 6: 19-20).

     My parents were heavy smokers.  They paid a dear price for not honoring God with their bodies. My dad died a terrible death from lung cancer at the relatively young age of 66, in which each breath became more difficult over many months. My mother died similarly of emphysema at age 73. By contrast, my in-laws, who did not smoke, lived to ages 82 and 90.

     Smoking does shorten one's life. By how much?  Seven years on average, reports the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Even people who started smoking in their teens and stopped in their twenties, have ''lasting damage'' says David Rosenbloom of Join Together, of Boston University's School of Public Health. It IS a destruction of the temple of the Holy Spirit.

     That's not how my dad viewed it, of course.  He believed the ads that smoking made him more manly, deepening his voice.  After his first lung cancer operation, I visited him in the hospital, only to find him smoking! It truly was a lethal addiction.

     The removal of billboards is part of the $206 billion agreement reached between tobacco producers and 46 states to resolve all state claims for health costs related to smoking.

     Why did the tobacco producers agree to such a huge settlement?   Did they not win a giant battle last year in Congress, defeating a $500+ billion bill proposed by the Administration?

     Yes, but they lost law suits in four states with aggressive Attorneys General who won lucrative multi-billion awards in compensation for years of higher state health care bills, setting a precedent that encouraged dozens of other states to file claims, frightening the tobacco industry.

     Mississippi was the first state to win an award.  As part of the deal, cigarette billboards came down last fall, as they did in the three other pioneering states, Florida, Texas and Minnesota. Result: Mississippi's cigarette sales have fallen by more than one-third! 

     The need for new action became clear last April in a report that teen smoking had soared by one-third over six years, rising from 27.5 percent in 1991 to 36.4 percent in 1997. 

     Vice President Al Gore reported last week that 88 percent of 12th graders, 86 percent of 10th graders and 82 percent of 8th graders who currently smoke cigarettes, smoke the most heavily advertised brands   Marlboro, Newport and Camel.  This data is backed up by a separate survey by the ''Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids,'' which reports that 75 percent of teens had seen tobacco ads vs. only 31 percent of adults. Kids also remember Marlboro, Newport, Camel ads.

     Therefore, the disappearance of cigarette billboards and an anti-smoking ad campaign, already begun in Florida and California, should make a difference. One more answer.

     The law prohibiting cigarette sales to minors needs more rigorous enforcement. For more than a decade, young teens have conducted sting operations in cooperation with the Allentown, Penn. Health and Police Departments.  ''In 1985, 100 percent of the stores sold to 12 to 14-year-olds.  Last June, only 10 percent did so,'' says Barbara Stader, Health Director. Why? The fines for sales to minors increased from $25 the first time to $1,000 for a third offense.

     Question to church youth groups: why not organize a sting operation with your Police Departments? You will help save the lives of your friends.

     Florida is going one step further, arresting kids found smoking.  The result? The number of junior high students who smoke dropped from 18.5 percent to 15 percent; and high school smokers declined from 27.4 to 25.2 percent.

     These are the first declines of teen smoking in the nation since 1980.

Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.

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