Commentary

Scared Straight?

By Aaron Lukas
February 22, 1999

“Tobacco companies spend billions of dollars on marketing that addicts kids,” warned the banner advertisement on the Washington Post’s Web site. “How much is it worth to save their lives?” I’m not fond of children smoking, of course, so I clicked on the ad to see what the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids was all about. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that their mission is indeed to save kids’ lives: their sex lives.

That’s right, their sex lives. The privately funded Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — whose logo is displayed in cute childlike handwriting — wants to convince your kids not to smoke so that they can have better sex. That’s the only reasonable conclusion, given the bizarre focus on tobacco use and impotence that immediately pops up when you click on their banner ad.

It’s almost — almost — comical. Right next to links like “Today’s News” and the “Kids’ Corner,” young visitors learn that “smoking is clearly hazardous to your erection” and that “if you smoke, you’re playing Russian Roulette with your sexual function.” My favorite factoid, however, is that smokers are “about twice as likely to have erectile dysfunction.”

And, of course, the site poses the question every child asks: “Is impotence a problem that young smokers need to worry about?” Boston Radiologist Dr. Alan Greenfield confirms their worst fears. “I believe that the greatest risk [teens] run from smoking is the risk of impotence,” he says. Cancer and heart disease, you see, are long-term problems that today’s sophisticated youngsters can’t relate to. Sex they understand.


The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids demonstrates the absurd lengths to which anti-smoking crusaders will go in the name of protecting children from cigarettes.


Well maybe, I thought, the site is intended not for children, but for parents looking for tips to help discourage smoking. But if so, I can’t imagine that anyone at the campaign actually has kids: “Now listen here Billy Jr., I know you’ve been smoking up in your room. I want you to stop it right now; you wouldn’t want to be embarrassed when you sneak your girlfriend up there.”

The unorthodox anti-smoking message was first dreamed up in Thailand, where authorities have begun printing impotence warnings on cigarette packs.

Intrigued, I decided to find out more about a group that so despises tobacco that they would suggest, at least indirectly, that children engage in sexual activity as an alternative to lighting up. So I did some clicking. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is run by the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, “the country’s largest non-governmental initiative ever launched to protect children from tobacco addition and exposure to second-hand smoke.”

“The CAMPAIGN serves as a resource and partner for more than 130 health, civic, corporate, youth and religious groups” and is “dedicated to reducing tobacco use among America’s children,” the site says. Religious groups? A few more mouse clicks gave me a list of partner organizations, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the General Board of Church & Society of the United Methodist Church, and the National Council of Churches, among others.

It’s hard to believe that the Mormons endorse convincing kids not to smoke by telling them it will undermine their sexual performance. I can only hope that they’re not aware of the strategy. I wonder who the corporate sponsors are? Condom manufacturers would be a natural fit.

In truth, it’s not entirely shocking that an anti-smoking group has finally stooped to this level. After all, this is the same organization that has long advocated running roughshod over the rights of tobacco companies and adult smokers in their stampede to save everyone else’s kids from the demon weed. And despite — or perhaps because of — their efforts, youth smoking has actually increased over the past five years. Apparently, desperate times call for desperate measures.

But this latest ploy isn’t likely to work any better than years of hectoring and “smoking isn’t cool” ads have. Cigarette advertising doesn’t make kids start smoking, and extorting money from tobacco companies to fund anti-smoking ads won’t make them stop. The “scared straight” strategy, by adding to the sense of danger and taboo that surrounds smoking, may even make the situation worse.

Underage smoking is a real problem, one that parents and kids should discuss seriously. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, however, demonstrates the absurd lengths to which anti-smoking crusaders will go in the name of protecting children from cigarettes. Too often that means sacrificing other important values — free speech, the rule of law, and now sexual restraint. Parents can do without that kind of help.

Aaron Lukas is an analyst at the Cato Institute.