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Combating tobacco ads

In her forceful appeal to teenagers to reject smoking, U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders shows how to combat the deadly messages of the tobacco industry:

Compete with truth and moral outrage, not with government bans.

Elders, in her remarks Thursday about a new study that reveals an alarming rise in teen smoking, took R.J. Reynolds Co. to task for its Joe Camel cartoon advertising campaign. And she is absolutely right. The campaign, despite denials from tobacco executives, is an offensive attempt to entice young impressionable people into trying a product that is addictive and can take their lives.

That's why it is vital that Elders and others speak out repeatedly, and that educators and parents help children understand the real risks of smoking. But it is not, as Elders also suggested, a reason for the government to use its powers in ways that offend the First Amendment. Tobacco is legal, and the free marketplace of ideas in which its corporate advertisers spread their message is constitutionally protected. To ask the government to ban tobacco advertising is to invite it to ban all messages it considers evil. That's an assault on freedom that is both pernicious and unnecessary.

The Joe Camel ads are indeed repugnant, but there are more effective ways for government to fight back. It can tax cigarettes more in line with their cost to society, and use some of that money for education campaigns. It can certainly eliminate the indefensible public subsidies to the industry. It can make sure that people who don't smoke are not exposed to the smoke of those who do.

Though Elders is right to be alarmed with the recent increase in teen smoking, it is also true that the percentage of high school and adult smokers is still lower than it was two decades ago. Education is one of the reasons, and Elders, while attending a public school after her press conference, gave some good advice to a child who wanted to know how to get people who "won't listen" to stop smoking. Said the surgeon general: "You just keep trying to find a message that they will listen to."

She is using her bully pulpit effectively, which is a way of combating tobacco's message without banning it.