WHY OVERLOOK ADS?

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If the federal government really wants to curb smoking, why is it so exclusively fixated on schemes or plans that mean more new restrictive product regulations? Why isn't it paying more attention to advertising?

We don't mean cigarette brand advertising. Politicians and regulators are already full of suspect ideas about how to censor or eliminate those messages. We mean advertising that powerfully sells the message that teens who take up the smoking habit all too often grow up to be middle-aged smokers who can't quit and end up with life-threatening health problems.

It's all very well for Food & Drug Administration chief David Kessler to ponder what FDA should do about nicotine because he suspects it is a "drug." But how does that help young people decide whether tobacco is "cool" or just a self-destructive way to show the world they are not kids any more?

In consumer interviews conducted by Advertising Age, one respondent said cigarette ads show "beautiful people" smoking but ads showing "old, tired, wrinkled people" would be more "true to life." In an editorial almost 10 years ago, we urged anti-tobacco-advertising forces to "embrace advertising rather than restrict it."

Why debate the dubious areas of addiction and advertising restictions when government health advocates have a powerful story to tell and access to powerful media-TV and radio-unavailable to tobacco marketers?

When faced with a willing market, government restrictions don't work. Prohibition didn't work; bans on advertising don't work.

What's needed is further change in attitude by young people. Public service announcements, with the media footing the bill, can't do the job alone no matter how well done and how well intentioned. What will work is paid advertising. It's time for the government to acknowledge this reality.

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