Steve Chapman

The court said the Massachusetts law was intolerable because it choked off communication about a legal activity. "In some geographical areas," complained Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, "these regulations would constitute nearly a complete ban on the communication of truthful information about smokeless tobacco and cigars to adult consumers."

But to anti-smoking zealots, that effect is not a bug but a feature. The only problem they have with imposing "nearly a complete ban" is the "nearly" part.

The crackdown on magazine ads is supposed to foil a dastardly plot to enslave middle-schoolers to lifelong nicotine addiction. In the 1998 legal settlement between states and the tobacco industry, cigarette makers agreed not to target adolescents in their advertising. But since then, reports the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, tobacco companies have sharply increased outlays on marketing efforts "that reach and influence kids."

If the point was to recruit new smokers, they've wasted their money. Students in middle school and high school are 44 percent less likely to try cigarettes today than they were in 1998. Only 6.4 percent of teens smoke every day, less than half as many as before.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says "cigarettes that are the most popular among kids are those that are also heavily advertised." But that doesn't prove advertising causes teens to take up the habit. It only indicates advertising may affect the brand preference of those who already smoke.

Corporate marketing doesn't explain very much about teen substance abuse. There are as many kids who use marijuana once a month or more as there are who smoke cigarettes that often. When was the last time you saw an ad for cannabis?

Punishing tobacco companies, which provide a legal product that consumers want, may not achieve anything in terms of reducing teen smoking or improving health. But in that case, sponsors may take satisfaction in the sheer pleasure of inflicting that punishment. Rest assured, they will.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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