Tieners krijgen op de middelbare school sexvoorlichting en soms zelfs condooms mee naar huis om er mee vertrouwd te raken. Informatie over alcohol is er ook genoeg. Waarom kan men ook niet gewoon met tabak doen wat men met sexvoorlichting doet?
Dat is de vraag die een commentator zich stelt in een artikel in de Boston Globe. Blijkbaar is het niet mogelijk om op school op een normale manier met tabak om te gaan, zegt hij:
“When it comes to tobacco, we are prohibitionists.”
You may have noticed, on the other hand, that we are not prohibitionists when it comes to sex. Instead, we’re almost libertines. We teach about it in school and talk about it incessantly. Far from banning it from television, sex is ever-present, not only in ads but also in the shows kids watch every day. Just last month, a Kaiser Family Foundation study found the frequency of sex scenes on television had nearly doubled since 1998.
Here’s a small illustration of the difference between the prohibitionists and libertines: Many school systems in Massachusetts make free condoms available to teens, with advocates arguing that the effect is not to encourage sexual activity but simply to ensure that if it occurs, disease and pregnancy are averted. Meanwhile, anti-tobacco activists are aghast at the idea of handing out free cigarette samples to teens and young adults, because, they say, they will inevitably cause them to smoke.
Clearly, both propositions cannot be true.
In fact, it appears, the libertines have got it right.
Despite our wanton ways – and the deplorable examples provided by role models such as President Clinton – teen sexual activity has been decreasing. That’s according to surveys conducted every two years by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The percentage of Massachusetts teens who have had sexual intercourse, for example, dropped from 49 percent in 1993 to 41 percent in 2003 (the most recent year for which data are available). One can find similar declines across a wide range of sexual behaviors here, as well as nationally. In an era filled with anecdotes about “friends with benefits,” those numbers may seem counterintuitive, but they likely reflect a point consistently made by free-speech advocates: More information leads to better choices.
And how about that prohibitionist approach to tobacco? On its face, it, too, seems successful. The same CDC surveys found that the number of Massachusetts kids who had ever smoked dropped over 10 years, from 68 percent to 53 percent – and similar drops can be found nationwide.
But wait. Those declines occurred during a time when the average inflation-adjusted price of tobacco doubled. A number of economic analyses conclude that a 10 percent price increase should cut teen smoking by about 7 percent.
Do the math. The price increases alone should have pushed down teen smoking to around 40 percent. Instead, it remains higher. Why? Think back to the original era of Prohibition, where, it appears, drinking (and drunkenness) actually climbed. Making something illegal can have the perverse effect of making it more attractive, a kind of forbidden fruit. It was true then; it’s likely true now.
So perhaps the lesson is that we should regard tobacco more like sex.