Public Health

Weed Whackers

Bill Clinton bashes fags, while Bob Dole takes pot shots.


The presidential race has turned into a war of weeds, a contest to determine which represents a greater threat to the youth of America: tobacco or marijuana. Bill Clinton, a former pot smoker, wants to crack down on cigarettes. Bob Dole, a former cigarette smoker, wants to crack down on pot. Both propose to save the children by restricting the freedom of adults, and each accuses the other of inadequate concern.

Lest I invite the same charge, let me say, at the risk of sounding like a politician (or a tobacco company), that children should not smoke–anything. Although the long-term effects of marijuana use have been exaggerated, the immediate effects tend to get in the way of learning and socialization. Like alcohol, marijuana impairs attention, short-term memory, and coordination. Children are less equipped to deal with such effects than adults. They are more likely to use intoxicants inappropriately and to act irresponsibly while under the influence. Reality tells us that the vast majority of teenagers who try pot (or alcohol) nevertheless manage to become decent, productive citizens. But the regular use of such intoxicants, especially as a way to relieve anxiety or deal with social pressure, presents special dangers to the cognitive and emotional development of adolescents.

With cigarettes, by contrast, the psychoactive effects are mild, but the long-term physical effects are substantial. Given the difficulty of quitting and the serious health hazards involved, it is reasonable to put cigarette smoking in the same category as enlisting in the Army, getting married, and other risky decisions that are reserved for adults. The difference in maturity between a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old should not be exaggerated, but a person's attitude toward the prospect of lung cancer at 65 is apt to change as he grows up.

So the recent increases in both kinds of smoking among teenagers are cause for concern. They are not cause for panic. According to the 1995 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, the results of which were released in August, the share of 12-to-17-year-olds who said they had used marijuana in the previous month rose from 3.4 percent in 1992 to 8.2 percent last year. The increase followed a 13-year decline from a peak of 14.2 percent in 1979. The share of teenagers reporting past-month use of cigarettes rose from 18.4 percent in 1992 to 20.2 percent in 1995. That figure had also been falling; it was 29.4 percent in 1985, the most recent year for which cigarette data were listed. (The pre-1994 figures have been adjusted because of changes in methodology, so they are different from the numbers originally reported for those years.)

It's easy enough to make the trends seem more alarming. "Marijuana use among young people has more than doubled (an increase of 105%) since Clinton took office," announced a Dole campaign press release. That certainly sounds worse than an increase of 4.2 percentage points. This trick is even more effective when you start with a smaller base. Hence "use of LSD and other hallucinogens has nearly tripled" (to 1.7 percent), while "monthly use of cocaine, the scourge of the 1980s, went up among young people by an appalling 166%" (to a whopping 0.8 percent). The Clintonites have to settle for a not-so-startling 10 percent increase in teenage smoking over three years. But they can fall back on the number of annual (or daily) smoking-related deaths, which is always impressive, whether it's going up or not. Unfortunately for Dole, marijuana has never actually killed anybody, so far as we know.

In the face of such fear-mongering, looking at the absolute rates of use helps keep things in perspective. It's also worth noting that past-month use, which the government's statisticians like to call "current use," is not the same as daily use, or weekly use, or even monthly use (since someone who has smoked tobacco or marijuana in the month prior to the survey does not necessarily do so every month). The consequences of an occasional cigarette or joint are likely to be much less serious than a pack-or bong-a-day habit. Troubling though teenage drug use may be, the solutions proposed by Dole and Clinton are far more worrisome. "This is nothing short of a national tragedy," said Dole. "Starting next January, I'm going to make the drug war priority No. 1 once again." Since almost half a million Americans were arrested on marijuana charges in 1994, 42 percent more than the average annual total during the Bush administration, it's not clear what making the drug war "priority No. 1" would mean, but we can guess: more arrests, more invasions of homes and seizures of property, more violence, more bystander deaths, more corruption, more needless suffering because the government does not approve of the chemicals that millions of Americans choose to ingest.

Clinton's plan to regulate the marketing and distribution of cigarettes through the Food and Drug Administration is part of a campaign to treat tobacco more like a controlled substance. A couple of years ago, FDA Commissioner David Kessler decided that the nicotine in cigarettes was a "drug" as defined by the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act: a substance (other than food) intended to affect the structure or function of the human body. Last year the FDA announced plans to regulate cigarettes as "nicotine delivery devices," putting them in a category that is generally limited to medical products. This is an anomalous status for a legal recreational drug, like treating beer as an "ethanol delivery device" or Coca-Cola as a "caffeine delivery device."

Among other things, the FDA's regulations, which were finalized in August, ban broad categories of cigarette advertising and promotion: no more brand-name sponsorship of sporting events, no more logo-imprinted merchandise, no more illustrated signs in stores, no more color or pictures in billboards or in ads carried by publications that Junior might see. As Clinton explained, "Cigarette smoking is the most significant public health hazard facing our people," and "Joe Camel promises that smoking will make you cool." It is hard to say which is more disturbing: that the Leader of the Free World considers Marlboro caps and Joe Camel T-shirts–articles of clothing!–such a menace to society that they cannot be tolerated, or that he wants to ban them precisely because of the message he thinks they communicate.

Censorship is just the first step. If underage smoking does not fall by at least 50 percent within seven years, the FDA has promised to "take additional measures." Since the agency's claim of jurisdiction seems to give it carte blanche to deal with cigarettes in whatever way it deems appropriate, "additional measures" could be anything from product specifications (restrictions on nicotine content, for example) to outright prohibition. Clinton and Kessler have insisted that banning tobacco is out of the question, since the consequences of creating a huge black market would be unacceptable.

Yet the American public has been perfectly willing to accept such consequences for the last eight decades, since the onset of the drug war that Bob Dole wants to intensify. As smoking declines and becomes increasingly concentrated in lower socioeconomic groups, tobacco could one day become another target in the war on drugs. Then people like Bob Dole and people like Bill Clinton may have nothing to argue about.