March 29, 2000: Column on Teen Smoking



March 29, 2000

The last time I wrote about the threat that smoking presents to our children was in June of 1998. The Senate leadership had just blocked an administration bill designed to cut teen smoking in half. "The defeat of the tobacco bill," I wrote, "was a stunning example of our elected representatives putting political self-interest above the health and well-being of America's families and children."

Since I wrote that column, research shows that nearly 2 million young people -- 3,000 each day -- have started smoking. One third of them, or more than 600,000, will die prematurely as a result.

Five years ago, the Food and Drug Administration proposed rules that would have protected children from tobacco by eliminating advertising targeted to them and curbing their access to tobacco products. The industry challenged the FDA in court, and last week, the Supreme Court, in a case that has been called the most important public-health issue before the high bench in 50 years, struck down the FDA effort. Although the Court's 5-4 majority opinion affirmed the administration's view that tobacco use by children "poses perhaps the single most significant threat to public health in the United States," the majority ruled that the FDA alone does not have the authority to regulate tobacco. Rather, the Court concluded it is up to Congress either to pass legislation regulating tobacco directly, or expand the FDA's mandate to allow the agency to do so itself.

With that opinion, the ball is suddenly back on the floor of Congress -- where I hope every member will keep in mind that this case is not simply about the FDA's authority. It is about the health of our children.

Protecting our children's health is not a partisan issue. In 1998, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Republicans William Frist and John McCain, put aside partisan politics, and offered legislation that would have allowed the FDA to move ahead. Last week, similar legislation was introduced in the House. The American people care about protecting their children from tobacco. It is time for members of Congress to pay attention and pass this bill.

Both the President and the Vice President are working hard on many fronts to reach their goal of cutting teen smoking in half. Because experts agree that the most effective step we can take to decrease the rate of youth smoking is to raise the price of cigarettes significantly, the President's budget proposal includes a 25-cent increase per pack. Starting in 2004, the President's plan would impose a $3,000 assessment on the tobacco industry for every underage smoker if the rate of youth smoking is not cut in half. This $3,000 figure represents twice the lifetime profits the industry could expect to make from hooking one teen on cigarettes -- a policy that should go a long way toward getting the industry interested in reducing smoking by young people.

In order to help lower-income Americans quit smoking, the budget includes an important initiative to ensure that Medicaid beneficiaries have access to drug treatments that can help them stop. And the Justice Department has begun litigation to recover federal tobacco-related health costs from tobacco manufacturers.

On the state level, the President has challenged states that settled lawsuits against the tobacco companies in 1998 to live up to their promise to reduce tobacco use, particularly among children. Far too many states have failed to keep their word, despite the fact that, in some states, efforts to combat youth smoking are beginning to show dramatic results.

As a result of a comprehensive tobacco-prevention program launched in Florida by the late Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1997, smoking rates among middle-schoolers have dropped from 18.5 percent in 1998 to 8.6 percent in 2000, a 54 percent decline. In Oregon, the drop was 32 percent among eighth-graders, and 17 percent for 11th-graders. And in Massachusetts, smoking among all high school students fell 15 percent between 1995 and 1999. These results show why every state should have a comprehensive program to reduce youth smoking.

If children can get through adolescence without smoking, chances are they won't light up as adults. But for those who start, it's hard to quit. Eighty-six percent of teens who smoke daily and try to quit are unsuccessful. They need help, and this bill would give it to them.

I would like to see all the members of Congress who do not support tobacco legislation post this sign prominently over their desk: "Each day that I fail to support tobacco legislation, 3,000 more children will start smoking, and more than 1,000 of them will die prematurely as a result." Maybe that not-so-subtle reminder will bring them around. Let's hope so. The health of our children is at stake.

To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at



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