I started my career in comedy in 1970 by giving cancer to college students.
That was the year that cigarette commercials were banned from television. If tobacco companies wanted to reach the elusive youth market, the fledgling National Lampoon was a logical place to spend advertising dollars. Thus the magazine was kept afloat and my career as a writer launched.
You should know that I'm a nonsmoker. Not my vice. Tried it once, coughed, never lit up again. I did once live with someone who smoked three packs a day, so if what they say about secondhand smoke is true, it's possible that by now my lungs have as many holes as that lace those French nuns used to go blind making.
And yeah, in high school I did borrow my sister's hot pink negligee and posed in front of my mirror, unlit cigarette in hand, pretending to be Elizabeth Taylor in "Butterfield 8." The image of cigarette smoking as sexy should be as dead as that long-vanished telephone exchange. But somehow it isn't. You know it, I know it, and the 3,000 American teens who take up smoking every day know it.
So when I heard President Clinton's plan to decrease teen smoking by increasing cigarette prices, I laughed. Since when did making something more expensive make it less desirable? True, I've cut back on my caviar habit in recent years. But if, for example, raising the price of gasoline has significantly reduced our nation's collective jones for fossil fuel, I must not be driving in the fast lane.
Suppose that 10 years from now, only rich kids can afford cigarettes. Does that mean we don't care if they get cancer? Personally I wouldn't mind if the entire cast of "Beverly Hills, 90210" wound up in the lung unit at Cedars-Sinai, but they are way old enough to smoke. There must be some affluent teens in different ZIP codes across the country who don't deserve to be at risk.
And what about kids in poor neighborhoods? If cigarettes are priced so far beyond their reach, aren't they more likely to knock over a 7-Eleven so they can get their smokes? Any cop will tell you that when the price of heroin goes up, so do burglaries.
Clinton espouses the idea that cigarette packaging should be made less attractive to teens. Let's put aside what is or isn't attractive to teens--remember, you're talking about a population segment that considers nose rings attractive. What are you going to do, put cigarettes in a plain brown wrapper? That really worked for pornography. Nobody buys it any more hardly at all.
Sorry, Mr. President, but this sounds like a bad plan to me. And don't go thinking that you can ban cigarette smoking altogether. Maybe you don't recall a little episode in our nation's glorious history called Prohibition. Get Hillary to tell you all about it. It didn't work any better than when my parents told my sister and me that we weren't allowed to chew gum.
Already, in a number of states, including California, teens caught smoking can be ticketed and fined anywhere from $25 to $100--summoning up the unpleasant picture of a cigar-chomping small-town cop hauling teens off to the hoosegow for sneaking a few puffs. Next thing you know, they'll be back to shining flashlights into parked cars on Lover's Lane, something that sure put a stop to teenage pregnancy in the '50s.
Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco) said he plans to question Hollywood executives, writers and producers about the increased prevalence of smoking in television and movies. Apparently 70% of the top grossing movies made last year contained at least one tobacco-related scene, as opposed to 29% in the '70s. Half the movies made between 1990 and 1995 featured a lead character who smokes, and we're not talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger covered in dry ice.
If I ever thought smoking was cool--and I did--it wasn't peer pressure. It was because everyone cool in the movies did it. James Dean, Marlon Brando, Robert Mitchum. Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly in "Marjorie Morningstar." Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty in "Splendor in the Grass." Bogie and Bacall. Bette Davis, who once wrongly and gloriously announced "If smoking caused cancer, I'd have been dead before the second reel of 'Now Voyager.' " Practically the only people who didn't smoke in '50s movies were wearing togas, except for Audrey Hepburn in "A Nun's Story."
So Sen. Burton may have a point. If Hollywood really wants to help out, neither the heroes nor the villains should be allowed to light up--only the nerdy characters. In a world where only accountants, insurance salesmen and guidance counselors smoked, what teen would want to?
Instead of asking tobacco companies to tone down their advertising, invite them back to TV. But require them to associate smoking with really boring activities, like hedge-clipping, folding contour sheets, or math homework. Show teens lighting up while helping Dad clean out the garage or going coat shopping with Mom. Maybe Nancy Reagan could be persuaded to give smoking her endorsement--"Just say yes."