By Marie Cocco
It’s all right to be just a bit defensive when you’re the addict in chief.
“You just think it’s neat to ask me about my smoking as opposed to it being relevant to my new law,” President Obama snapped when a reporter justifiably asked him at a news conference how he’s doing on kicking his cigarette habit—and whether the landmark legislation he signed requiring the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the tobacco industry would help.
Recovering his equanimity, the president explained that he’s “95 percent cured” from smoking, doesn’t smoke in front of his family and doesn’t light up every day. In short, he is a closet smoker—just like millions of other Americans who are trying to quit, whose families are dismayed that they haven’t, and who risk public opprobrium when they admit they’re still tethered to tobacco.
“Once you’ve gone down this path, then, you know, it’s something you continually struggle with, which is precisely why the legislation we signed was so important, because what we don’t want is kids going down that path in the first place,” the president explained. “OK?”
Except for one point. Obama should be neither annoyed nor embarrassed that he keeps getting asked—about “once every month or so,” he says—about his struggle with cigarettes. He happens to be, hands down, the best possible spokesman for the new FDA regulation. He should embrace the role.
The president should make public service announcements describing his addiction to cigarettes, which he began smoking as a teenager, and his so-far-failed efforts to completely snuff them out. Because after all, if such a smart, smooth and incontestably successful man is having such trouble quitting, what hope is there for the average American who has no worries about a prying press or the negative aura of a nicotine-stained image?
“A lot of people are under the misimpression that a cigarette is a piece of paper with some tobacco stuck in it, and a filter at the end,” says Erika Sward, the American Lung Association’s national advocacy director. “In reality, this is one of the most sophisticated and engineered products on the market. The tobacco companies have manipulated everything.”
That includes, Sward says, the size of the particle a smoker inhales, adjusted so that it delivers “the rush of nicotine that they are craving.” The industry used consumer feedback to manipulate even the color of ashes that appear in an ashtray: After determining that dark ashes were a turnoff, it took measures to lighten them.
These illusions are among the reasons why, after decades of trying to get Americans to stop smoking by warning them of the dire health consequences, millions of people still do. Worse, about 1,100 teenagers a day become “regular” smokers, Sward says.
Young people would be the most significant beneficiaries of FDA regulation. Under the law, candy- and fruit-flavored cigarettes are to be banned, as are tobacco-industry sports and entertainment sponsorships that have survived despite restrictions required with the settlement of state-sponsored lawsuits against Big Tobacco. Vending machines and self-service displays—the point-of-sale promotion routes to youths that the tobacco companies exploited after the lawsuits curtailed other forms of advertising—would be restricted to adults-only venues.
Once the FDA forces the tobacco industry to reveal what, exactly, is in cigarettes—we still don’t know for certain—the agency would be empowered to require changes in current and future tobacco products that would reduce or eliminate harmful ingredients and possibly remove from them the addictive substances that trap so many in a habit that they can come to hate.
No doubt, an industry skilled at creating imagery and arguments to promote itself despite all evidence that its product kills will find ways—lawsuits already are threatened against the new law’s advertising restrictions—to muddle public discussion. This is where Obama’s considerable persuasive skills can come into play.
“The president has really highlighted how addictive tobacco products are and how great the need for this legislation is,” Sward says.
Obama’s personal difficulty in quitting doesn’t only reflect the formidable odds that adults have in overcoming nicotine addiction. The president is living proof to the young people whose hopes powered his candidacy, and for whom he is a compelling role model, that even the most disciplined among us can become hooked.
He is the best conceivable advertisement to counter the tobacco industry’s marketing machine.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group