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Marlboro ManRecently President Obama signed into effect a historic piece of legislation that greatly affects the tobacco industry and its customers.  The bill, which President Obama eagerly signed, finally subjugates the tobacco industry to the dictates of the FDA.

The FDA now has the authority to regulate the tobacco industry with impunity.  It can dictate the contents inside tobacco products, such as nicotine and other chemicals, and impose severe restrictions on advertising.  It will now be illegal for tobacco companies to sell candy and fruit flavored cigarettes.  Cigarette companies will no longer be permitted to have advertisements with colorful images or rest on attractive store displays but instead must be black-and-white and consist of text only.  Some experts even predict that by regulating the content of cigarettes, the new FDA standards will “make them taste so bad, it [will] deter users.”  Finally, tobacco companies will be required to themselves pay for the new bureaucracy that will regulate them.

President Obama hailed this legislation as a way to “protect our kids and improve our public health.”  He claimed that children especially are “aggressively targeted as customers by the tobacco industry.  They’re exposed to a constant and insidious barrage of advertising where they live, where they learn, and where they play.” The underlying premise behind this bill is that when people, especially kids, see an attractive advertisement or taste a candy-flavored cigarette, they cannot resist purchasing the product being promoted.   Tobacco industries might create an ad so appealing or engineer a cigarette so delectable that Americans will be helplessly led to buy a pack of cigarettes.

Tobacco companies, however, do not possess the power of coercion.  They cannot do anything to force people to purchase their products.  All they can do is offer and promote products that their customers value.  Cigarette ads, like all ads, are made to appeal to a certain target market.  Ads for alcohol aimed towards young men, for example, often display pretty women showing appreciation for a man’s choice of alcoholic beverage.  Such an advertisement will seem appealing to some people and appalling to others- but all are free to choose to purchase the product being promoted, or to purchase something else.  Similarly, when tobacco companies create cigarette ads, they try to appeal to the interests of their target market.  Viewing such ads, as enticing as they might be, does not brainwash anyone into purchasing an alcoholic beverage or a pack of cigarettes.  Advertisements only serve to actively remind people of the existence of certain products.  The choice to purchase these products, no matter how seductive they might be, remains just that—a choice.  Similarly, while the sweet taste of a fruit flavored cigarette might tempt a smoker to purchase another cigarette, the decision to do so is ultimately his.

Although those like President Obama seem to think differently, people are capable of making responsible decisions for themselves.  Individuals have the responsibility to assess the risks and benefits of smoking and then decide whether to smoke occasionally, frequently, or never.  There are some who make these decisions without such careful consideration, but that too was their choice, and they should bear the consequences of their decisions.

Anti-smoking advocates point out, however, that children cannot make careful, informed decisions about cigarettes.  But this isn’t just true of cigarettes.  Left to their own devices, children might decide to eat too much candy, stay up all night watching television, or use bad language.  Should the government also monitor how much candy children eat or when they go to bed?  Obviously not.  It is the responsibility of parents to guide their children into making the right choices.  Parents need to anticipate difficult situations that may arise in their children’s lives, such as peer pressure to have sex or do drugs, and discuss with them how to resolve these situations.  If there is a billboard advertising cigarettes in a child’s neighborhood, it is his parents’ responsibility to explain to him why he should not try a cigarette, even if it looks “cool” or exciting.

As long as tobacco companies are not presenting false information (which should rightfully be a crime), they should be able to advertise in any way they want and offer whichever products they choose in order to advance their business.  Tobacco companies do not force us to buy their products.  We choose to do so, and it is high time we take responsibility for our actions, instead of punishing an industry that is guilty only of offering products that so many people value.

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