Something great was supposed to happen 14 years ago. They said it would. We celebrated the day, the very day that would come – in the year 2000 – that the goal would be reached.
The year was 1988. We printed little t-shirts for 5 and 6 year olds. They were bright yellow. The kids looked so cute in them as they put them on and the shirts went right down to their knees, leaving little sneaker feet showing. We had bright glossy banners and stickers, too. Wow, did they like the stickers. Their principals and teachers didn’t as they later found them stuck to the lockers and books and walls – sorry about that.
There were healthy snacks brought in and parents invited, too. There was lots of press that day, the first day of school in 1988. We picked the John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Providence for the press conference. Mr. Kane was the principal. I was in my 30s and I believed that if you could get these kids when they were little, then you could make it happen. You could make a difference. I believed in that.
When they were 18 years old, in the year 2000, these bright-eyed children would graduate high school as the first “Smoke-Free” Class of 2000. They would go forth into their adult lives living without the scourge of tobacco in their medical history, waiting like a stealth device to engage and rob them of their health and their lives, years later. Their children would be smoke-free, too. And their grandchildren, and so on, and so on, and so on. We were going to eliminate the use of tobacco in this country. Nothing less.
We even had a song. “Healthy hearts! Healthy lungs! We don’t have to stop! Because we will never start!” We are the Smoke free class of 2000 – Two – 0h – 0h – 0hhhh! That’s the way to go!”
In RI, Keisha Knight Pulliam, who played Rudy on The Cosby Show, and served as the national ambassador for the SFC2000 came to visit. I spent the day with her taking her around in a limo to schools and programs, ending at the John Hope Settlement House with Mayor Buddy Cianci. I still remember “Rudy” saying, “Mr. Mayor, can I call you Bud?” in her fetching way (Bud was her little boyfriend on TV). The kids went wild. There was no doubt in my mind that these kids would get it. They would be smoke-free as 18 year olds. We jumped for joy and sang and cheered and passed out those t-shirts, coloring books and stickers.
Over the next few years, the hoopla faded away. The program disappeared as a priority rather quickly, and no one talked about it anymore. Notably, since the late 70s, one national health agency has raised in excess of $750 million in schools for their health program initiatives, with events held in every state.
50 years ago this year we mark the first US Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking OR Health. The report came out in 1964 and directly tied smoking to chronic diseases – specifically heart disease and cancer – but also other health threats. It’s estimated that the rate of highs school seniors who smoke has fallen from over 38% to 16% today. That’s more than a 58% decline. We also know that each day, almost 3,900 kids under 18 try their first cigarette and more than 1,000 kids become new, regular smokers.
So how did we do with our t-shirts, vim and vigor? And how are we doing today? We do know a lot more about behavior change and about how hard it is to break addiction to tobacco. We’ve nearly eliminated smoking in public places (including restaurants). Yet we see the creep in cigar and hookah bars and efforts to smoke on beaches and in public parks taking on a civil rights tone of right wing America. We see drugstore chains beginning to cave, under the leadership of mega-CVS to make tobacco harder and harder to purchase. We are taxing tobacco to oblivion and beyond (and are making our state budgets dependent on it, too).
What else is going on? We are seeing sales of individual cigarettes and flavored cigarettes rise. And now we have e-cigarettes flourishing. If you go to an Ivy League college watch what the students are smoking – long, thin, dark brown, European cigarettes, unfiltered – they are cool, man – cool from Europe kind of cool. Tobacco companies have taken their wares and gone oversees – travel to Paris, China or just about anywhere and the stifling waft of smoke overcomes you in restaurants, bars, and just about everywhere.
Our campaigns now focus on adults and on photos of people with half gone faces from jaw surgery and videos of scarred and mutilated women begging us to stop. We have very direct warnings on cigarette packages. We have tobacco cessation programs anywhere you want to find them – and Nicorette – and fake cigarettes you can hold. I have a colleague who walks around with a half smoked cigar – he lights it up about twice a day and takes a big puff, and then stamps it out. He has custom made shirts and cufflinks and drives a Jaguar. With this little brown rotting cigar butt clasped between his fingers.
In this 50th year of the Surgeon General’s report (also the 50th year of recognizing February as Heart Month), I don’t hear a call for the “Smoke-free Class of 2028” from any of the health agencies. The only website of the 3 who began the original program that even speaks to smoking and children in any significant way is the American Lung Association.
The five year olds who began as our nation’s Smoke-Free Class of 2000 are today about 31 years old. The majority have probably taken much of the same path – gone through school, natural rebellion times, their own personal trials, wins and misses, and are probably settling in a career path, finding a mate, and thinking about having their children, if they are not already parents. So, now, they have bright shiny faces looking up at them.
The Secretary of HHS, Kathleen Sebelius has said that if smoking rates continue as they are now, 5.6 million children who are alive today will ultimately die prematurely from smoking. One of every 13 children.
I ask the question but I don’t have any firm answer or even a guess – who will ask these children to be smoke-free? It’s probably not even talked about that much in our homes as drug and alcohol an texting while driving, and HIV and other issues have taken front and center.
So, what is the tobacco industry doing to recruit its brand new members today? You can be sure they are not giving out t-shirts, and buttons, and singing songs.