THE 1998 tobacco settlement was the product of much heaving and table-banging, so it was natural to hope that its consequences would be muscular as well. One year on, the evidence is not all positive. The settlement did produce a price jump of 45 cents or more per pack of cigarettes, which seems to have discouraged smoking: The data for 1999 are expected to show that the number of cigarettes consumed has fallen by between 7 and 9 percent. In other respects, however, the promises in the settlement are not being fulfilled.
The state governments, whose lawsuits shoved the tobacco firms to the negotiating table, declared at the time that they would use the money from the settlement to discourage teenage smoking. This was a sensible policy goal, partly because some four out of five people who use tobacco take up the habit before they are 18, and partly because smoking among high school students has increased nationwide during the 1990s.
Unfortunately, last year's promise to fight youth smoking has been patchily honored. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 8 percent of the $206 billion that the tobacco companies will pay the states under the settlement is going to anti-smoking efforts; the rest is going to roads and tax cuts and the like. The shortsightedness of not funding anti-smoking programs, even in a time of budget plenty, is underscored by the few states that have invested in them. Florida saw the number of high school smokers decline by 8 percent, and of middle school smokers by 19 percent, in the first year of its program. Massachusetts has seen high school smoking rates fall from 35.7 percent in 1995 to 30.3 percent in 1999.
The states' reluctance to pay for anti-smoking efforts has been the biggest disappointment in the year since the tobacco settlement. But the marketing restrictions that--despite legitimate free speech objections--were trumpeted a year ago have proved limited as well. Large billboards have been taken down from highways and building tops, and the notorious Joe Camel cartoon character has retired. But cigarette companies have by no means lost the natural urge to promote themselves and their wares.
In retrospect, the 1998 settlement was not a watershed in the tobacco wars; it was merely a blip. The welcome fall in consumption resulting from the price increase may turn out to be temporary unless it is followed up with serious efforts to dissuade kids from smoking.
The effort should come first at the state level, but then also from the federal government. The Supreme Court is set to rule shortly on whether the Food and Drug Administration can, under existing law, claim jurisdiction over tobacco. If the answer is no, Congress needs to empower the FDA with new legislation. Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.