The American Cancer Society has been a leader in the war
against tobacco. To find out about the Society's future plans, the following is an
interview from Dr. Dileep G. Bal, the Society's national president.
Q. Cigarettes kill more than 400,000 Americans every
year, more deaths than from AIDS, alcohol, car accidents, murders, suicides, drugs and
fires combined. What can be done to decrease these numbers?
A. I think we have to do more to stop kids from starting. We must take the industry
head-on, even though it is difficult and the tobacco industry has tremendous resources. It
spends over $5 billion each year marketing its products and millions more on public
relations, political contributions and lobbying. We need to approach smoking from a public
health perspective as well as a personal one that says to a young person, here are the
risks if you smoke. Laws like the one we have in California that bars smoking in most
public settings including restaurants and workplaces are important, because they decrease
the number of places kids can smoke.
Q. Since 1988, California has experienced the
greatest impact of all states with a 50 percent decline in tobacco use, compared to 30
percent for the country as a whole. What part in that reduction have the high taxes on
A. A major role, especially in decreasing smoking rates among young people and
low-income adults. In 1988, voters passed Proposition 99 that added a 25-cent-per-pack
surtax on tobacco products to finance anti-smoking programs. Surtaxes like that put
tobacco products beyond the reach of many kids who don't have much disposable income.
Studies show that a 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes can lead to a 6 to 10
percent decrease in the smoking rate of kids and a 3 to 5 percent rate for adults.
Discouraging young people from smoking is crucial, because every day 3,000 kids begin
Q. Each year children smoke more than 920 million
packs of cigarettes, resulting in about $500 million in profits for the cigarette
companies. Underage smokers find it easy obtain cigarettes. Any solutions?
A. About half of all underage smokers usually buy the cigarettes they smoke either
directly from retailers or vending machines or give money to others to buy them. Other
kids get their cigarettes for free from older smokers or even steal them from their
parents. What we need is to make it impossible for underage smokers to obtain cigarettes.
Voluntary compliance programs, such as those promoted by the big cigarette companies,
don't work. In some places, cigarette sales represent 70 percent of the sales and 50
percent of the profits of mom-and-pop stores, so there is a big financial incentive for
these places to sell to children. On the other hand, laws against cigarette sales to kids
do work. Regular compliance checks and fines can significantly reduce youth smoking.
Massachusetts has made strong enforcement of youth access a priority. Officials conduct
regular sting operations and fine violators. As a result, illegal retail sales have
dropped from 48 percent to 8 percent.