Tobacco

Joe Blow

|

Tobacco's opponents can't resist beating a dead camel. In October the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the rate at which teenagers became daily smokers rose by 50 percent between 1988 and 1996. Though the CDC did not mention Joe Camel in its report, it clearly had him in mind: 1988 was the first full year, and 1996 the last, of the ad campaign featuring the droll dromedary.

The press drew the intended inference, running stories with headlines such as "Joe Camel Advent Part of Teen Smoking Rise, U.S. Says" (Los Angeles Times), "Teen Smoking Linked to Joe Camel" (Bergen County Record), "Ads May Have Spurred Teen Smoking" (The Atlanta Journal), "Youth Smoking Soared in Era of Joe Camel Ads" (The Des Moines Register), and "Since Joe Camel's Debut, New Teen Smoking Up" (USA Today).

But the connection is not quite as clear as these accounts implied. The CDC's estimates were derived from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, which asks people the age at which they first tried a cigarette and the age at which they started smoking daily. Based on these recollections, the number of teens who became daily smokers did rise fairly steadily between 1988 and 1996. But the number of first-time teen smokers followed a bumpier trend, falling after Joe Camel's debut, then rising, then falling again before rising for several years in a row, starting in 1991.

More important than the fluctuations are other data from the same survey that seem to tell a story different from the one preferred by the CDC. The percentage of teenagers who reported smoking cigarettes during the previous month fell steadily between 1988 and 1992, when it started a three-year rise, followed by another dip. By 1996–the endpoint emphasized by the CDC–past-month smoking among teenagers was at the lowest level ever recorded: 18.3 percent. The next year, R.J. Reynolds gave Joe his walking papers, and teenage smoking went back up.