THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT IN ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION WITH PTA MEMBERS AND STUDENTS REGARDING TOBACCO AND PREVENTION
1:27 P.M. EST
Q Mr. President, you've provided leadership to the whole country on the issue of tobacco and children. Your partners in this effort are PTAs and religious leaders and, of course, the young people themselves. And we have a number of them here to talk to you a little about what they've been doing in this effort to reduce the number of young people that start smoking in the first place. And I know you'll be pleased to hear both the stories and the work that they're starting to do.
THE PRESIDENT: I'm looking forward to it. First of all, let me welcome all of you here to the White House and to the Oval Office.
As I'm sure you know, this is an issue that has concerned me for some time, and there are real reasons for it. Three thousand young people start smoking every day, even though it's illegal for them to do so. A thousand will have their lives shortened because of it. Smoking tobacco is the largest single cause of preventable death in the United States every year. And while there are things the government can do about it, we need your help.
When I gave my State of the Union address I said that our country has seven great challenges for the future, but the first and most important is to strengthen our families and give all of our children back their childhood. In the case of teen smoking, the Food and Drug Administration is reviewing about 700,000 comments from citizens before deciding what to do to discourage the marketing, the advertising, the sales of cigarettes to children more. We just promulgated what it called the Synar regulation, named in honor of the late Congressman from Oklahoma, Mike Synar, which requires states to take stronger stands to discourage teen smoking and to set a goal of reducing teen smoking by about 80 percent over the next several years.
So we're working hard, but we know we've got to have your help. We know this has got to be a partnership. I think the most important thing I've learned as President is that while government can't solve all of our problems, we have no business going back to a time when everybody's left to fend for themselves. These are things we have to do together. And I want to compliment the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and, of course, the National PTA. Thank you so much. And the American Cancer Society and all of those who are going to create this National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids.
This Center is sort of a symbol of how I think America ought to work, because it will involve the best national experts but, more importantly, community groups, all kinds of grass roots groups of people working together to try to deal with this issue.
And I just want to thank you and say that I hope that your presence here today and your work and your concern, especially the young people, will be a symbol that will, through the help of all these fine people here covering us, go out across America so that others will do that.
I mean, the ultimate issue here is to protect our children more and to give more control of family life back to parents. I don't think many parents want their children to start smoking. And parents, not advertising, should control that. Children should have a chance to learn within the family unit, within the school, within the churches, within the community, without being bombarded by all kinds of destructive messages that will knock them off track. So, ultimately, this is an effort that will give some dimension of real control and values back to the family, which is what we want to do.
Well, I'd like to spend the rest of the time listening to you. We could start -- Donna, how should we do it?
Q Ricky and Yasi and Christy did a survey. They checked -- they actually tested the stores in their neighborhood. And I thought they might tell you a little about what they found out when they tried to buy cigarettes. Ricky, you want to start?
Q Sure. When I went to buy cigarettes, usually I found that --
Q Ricky, tell us how old you are.
Q Well, first, I'm 17. I'm a senior in high school. And I found that most of the people, their argument was that I looked 18. And people came up -- it came to the point where I was -- I left the store and the clerk came out of the store and came and started yelling at the person I was with, telling us that -- about debriefing and how I looked 18 and stuff like that. And others would just try and play it off, like one lady in a Giant, she voided -- there's a place where there supposed to write the date of birth of the person who is buying the cigarettes for that law. And she overrode that on the register because she just figured it was unnecessary, and sold me the cigarettes anyway, whole big carton of them.
Q Christine, why don't you tell a little --
Q Yes. Just around -- like, I did about 20 stores in one day, and we would go in -- okay, like gas stations and 7-11s, and we would go up to the counter and try to buy cigarettes or any kind of tobacco product. And if they sold it to us, like, if they actually rung it up and everything, we gave them a "Gotcha" card. It was these little cards that said this is against the law and we're just doing a survey. And if they carded us, we would give them a "Thank you" card saying, you know, thanks for abiding by the law.
Q Now, you had an adult back-up, right?
THE PRESIDENT: Out of the places you went, how many carded you and how many sold?
Q More than half actually would sell to us, like, because we couldn't lie, so when they did ask us our age, we had to say 17, so probably a lot more would have sold it to us. But, yes, it was like probably 60 percent sold it to us.
Q Yes, about 60 percent, depending on how old you were, and that's how we did the survey. From how many stores I did -- I mean, my friend and I did 50 stores altogether.
THE PRESIDENT: Fifty?
THE PRESIDENT: Wow.
Q And about half of them actually would have sold to us. We did 12 vending machines in the whole survey. And 11 out of those 12 vending machines we were able to -- we would have been able to get out the cigarettes without anyone stopping us.
The one time that we couldn't do -- I mean, we couldn't get the cigarettes out was when -- I forget which store it was, but you had to have a token for it. So you had to go up to the cash register, show them your I.D. and then get a token. So you can put that in there, and then get the cigarettes.
Q Mr. President, to give you a sense of how tough this is, Bernie is the PTA President at Robinson High School. And you tried to get rid of vending machines?
Q We did. In '94 we tried to get rid of vending machines; it was connected with elementary schools -- the pyramid that leads into Robinson. We did a comment card back to Giant and asked them if they would please remove the vending machines, because that was one place you just cannot supervise children. And it didn't work. We were unsuccessful.
THE PRESIDENT: Let me say, all of you are from Virginia. Hasn't the Virginia -- isn't there a new proposal before the Virginia legislature that takes much stronger positions than that? All I know is what I've read about them, but it appeared to me that they were really moving in the right direction.
Q One is, as far as carding.
THE PRESIDENT: What does it do?
Q You will have to have picture photo I.D. in order to purchase. That one will work. But, for all intents and purposes, right now I'm afraid that the vending machine one is getting watered down.
THE PRESIDENT: In Virginia when you get a driver's license, do they put your picture on it?
Q Yes, sir.
Q But you're afraid the vending machine proposal is getting watered down?
Q That's the only one right now.
Q That is, I'm sure, if they pass that bill, it will help, but I was hoping that they would just do away with vending machines altogether because, I mean, I don't see the use of, I mean, I don't see the need for them, though they are convenient. You can always go up to the cash register and buy it there.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, one of the proposals that we are considering, that's being considered here by the FDA, is the question of whether they should be no vending machines in any place that children have access to. If you're going to have vending machines, maybe they should just be where only adults can come in.
Q You know Reverend Brown can tell you it's not just vending machines, it's the advertising. And this weekend he led a project.
Q Yes, Mr. President, we have been trying to remove all of the tobacco signs throughout the city. Alcohol is moving out, tobacco -- tobacco seems to be on the increase. The tobacco manufacturers seem to be getting more advertising out. Some of the brands -- Newports and others, and the Camel signs aren't coming down. And children have -- would you show the President some of the Joe Camel signs that are still available, still up?
These ads are everywhere. Unfortunately, we find them more in the African American and Latino communities in the nation's capital. But any given school might have 20, 25 ads up on the outside. You may find 10, 15, 20 ads on the inside. And children often go to these convenience stores. It's a serious problem here because we added a thousand new liquor licenses, alcohol licenses, most of which were convenience stores. So tobacco was one of the major products that they would sell. And the signs are everywhere. The children see it, they recognize the brands and can't spell or differentiate words like "church" and "children." And it's a sad state of affairs for the nation's capital.
Sometimes I think it's very misleading that the African American children in the nation's capital are said to have the lowest incidence of tobacco smoking. That's a misleading statistic when you look at the prevalence of the dope problems and you look at a number of other factors there.
But we thank you and we thank Dr. Shalala and Dr. Kessler for moving these regs ahead. We want them and we would hope that you count this as your city and help us to get the two bills --we have two tobacco bills that are sitting in city council, but we need to get hearings on them. And if you'd make a call for us or something, help us somehow, you know, we want these --
THE PRESIDENT: I didn't know that. Thank you for telling that. I'll see what we can do about it.
Q You're a resident.
THE PRESIDENT: Let me just say one thing about the advertising. I have said this before, but I want to reiterate. If anyone doubts the impact of the advertising on the children, you have only to look at the evidence that children are much more likely to buy the three most heavily advertised brands than adults are. Adults are more likely to shop, buy generic brands, cut their costs a little. Kids go right to the advertised brands. I think it's something like 85 percent of all cigarettes sold to young people are the three most heavily advertised brands.
Q And, Mr. President, one other thing about ads, a lot of times the ad makers or people who put them up say that they really don't entice people, make people smoke, they're there to help people switch brands. Well, if an ad can help someone switch a brand as powerful as brand loyalty is, those ads are too powerful to be in the paths of our children. We just have to keep advocating and remove them wherever the children walk or play.
One of the things that I found -- I'm also a therapist -- is, through the years with tobacco as well as some alcohol issues, when you ask -- one of the things you consistently find among the younger -- if you have younger clients or patients, they have mixed thoughts in their heads. They may know that it causes cancer, but they don't connect it with their own use, and they feel that if the government let the ad be up there -- you wouldn't let it be on television, you wouldn't let it be on the building if it really was harmful.
Q Keia, what do you think?
Q I think they should take down the pictures, because children who go around and they see the pictures and they think it's okay to buy cigarettes from stores. And I think that the people in the stores, the clerks who sell them to the children under a certain age should be talked to with a person who tries to convince people to stop smoking, to talk to that clerk and tell them how it harms the children who buy the cigarettes.
Q What do you think?
Q I think they should stop -- kids, I think they should stop putting up the ads and selling cigarettes and stuff, because it does influence kids and people's parents that smoke, does influence their kids to smoke, to peer pressure, to pressure. Stuff like that. That's why people smoke sometimes in the ads. And they see older people, like 18-year-olds smoking, so they think it's all right for them to do it.
THE PRESIDENT: That's what her letter to me says: "I'm glad you're trying to stop teens and other people from smoking. There are already enough people dying from diseases, and I don't want any more people to die from diseases. I think these are the diseases you die from -- like lung cancer, throat cancer and other diseases caused by smoking. What I'm trying to say is, please stop young people and teenagers from smoking. We are tomorrow's future." Good for you. Good luck.
Q Lucinda, who is sitting next to you, if she's not too embarrassed, got caught smoking.
And do you want to talk a little about how you were caught and what kind of -- maybe your mother will talk a little about the program at your school -- this is Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, right?
Q Yes. There's a 7-11 right next to our school, and kids go over there all the time and smoke and hang out and buy cigarettes there. And then at Giant across the street, there's a little plaza, and there's a Chinese place where there's a vending machine, and you can buy cigarettes there, also. Giant, we used to be able to, but they made the coins so we can't use the vending machine there anymore.
Q So are they using tokens?
Q You have to buy the tokens, because they check you at Giant.
Q Yes, at Giant. And one day after school I was with one of my friends, smoking, and the school security, the police officer there caught us over there. He does a good job at catching kids who are there, and we have to go to court and everything.
Q What did he do then?
Q He made us give him the rest of our cigarettes, and he wrote our names on it. And then he writes your name on a list, and he gave a ticket and everything.
Q Did you get a ticket?
Q How much did it cost you?
Q Nothing. It was a warning.
Q It was a warning. She got it waived. You got it waived in court. But your mother, then, has been working on a program at your school.
Q Each high school in Fairfax County has a security officer, policeman on duty. And one of their jobs is to stop kids from smoking because it's against the law. And in a conversation with him after my daughter got caught, we wanted to start some kind of a class that would get them to stop smoking, a smoking cessation class. But he wanted to used what the courts -- if you get caught drunk driving, you go to drunk driving school. We want if the kids get caught smoking, they go to stop smoking school.
But the incidence of kids who are sent to these schools doesn't work real well because they have to want to stop smoking before you do it. So we are now implementing a program called "Smokeless Saturdays." It's a program where if they get caught at school -- this is at school, not with the policeman -- the principal calls your parents and says, I caught your student smoking. Would you like to have them suspended for three days so they can stay home and smoke those three days? (Laughter.) Or would you like them to go to this Saturday school?
Now, if they go to the Saturday school, you as a parent have to be there. You spend the first two hours in another room while they talk to you about what this is doing to your child. And then you're child is in another room with a roundtable discussion of kids talking about tobacco advertising and why they start smoking and what makes -- what their triggers are -- the byword they use. Do they start smoking when they're with their friends? Do they do it when they're studying? Do they smoke in the bathrooms? Things like that. And then if they go through the Saturday class and they want to stop smoking, then we have the smoking cessation class that they can go to.
THE PRESIDENT: Let me ask you something. Do the young people in your school who smoke believe that it's dangerous?
Q They really don't care. They don't pay attention to the -- that you can cancer or anything. It just goes past that. They smoke with their friends, like she said, in the room. You're just sitting down outside and you're bored so you just -- one person lights up a cigarette and everybody else does, too.
THE PRESIDENT: They just don't think about any of the other --
THE PRESIDENT: I wanted to ask another question, if I might, because I want to -- this is relevant, I think, to the PTA concerns. Do the schools in your school district, do they have programs like for grade schoolers, which show pictures of lungs in people who smoked for a long time or whatever? Are those programs in the schools?
Q We have community coalitions now in Fairfax County that are -- they're coalitions of businesses, churches, communities, everybody that work within each school pyramid? And we had a drug and alcohol meeting where the kids came with their parents and we showed videos; we showed slides of kids, you know, what happens when they drink and drive and things like that, that they all came to. And these were very graphic things that the kids have seen. And I don't know if it's done all over, but I know we're trying.
THE PRESIDENT: The thing that made the biggest impression on our daughter when she was in grade school was -- and Hillary and I talked to her about this -- the thing that made the biggest impression on her was a class she had where they just showed them pictures of lungs in progression.
And, you know, she saw all these black lungs, and it made this vivid impression. And my mother had smoked all her life, practically, since she was a teenager. She started as a teenager, as most people do. And my daughter kept telling her what her lungs looked like -- this eight-year-old beating up on her grandmother. And for her eighth birthday, my mother stopped smoking. That was her gift to her granddaughter for her eighth birthday.
But that's why I asked you, because I thought it made a real impression on the children in the class. That's why I asked you that.
Q In the later grades, like junior high school and high school, in cities like the nation's capital, we have a 45 percent dropout rate, junior high and senior high. And so what goes on in the classroom will often be missed by a lot of the children who still need to be reached by programs.
THE PRESIDENT: That sort of thing, I think you've got to do that early.
Q I was just going to add there, Ginny can talk a little -- we're getting much more sophisticated by the preparation of materials. Schools are developing their own programs. I actually travel with a rubberized black lung that they wouldn't let me bring today, Mr. President -- (laughter) -- and dirty teeth, for talking to elementary schools, which is very graphic. I'll bring it by some day.
Q Very much so. One of the interesting things that we think is real important is the change that's been happening in comprehensive school health education programs overall. And even though a number of students do indeed drop out, we know that if that's a comprehensive education that started in K and 1 and 2 grades, we're beginning to make some difference. Yes, the black lungs -- I still remember those when I was a health teacher at that level, too.
The other thing I think is real significant is that we need to begin to present teenagers, particularly, even the short-term consequences, because they do indeed get to that age where they believe they're living forever, and those statistics are happening to someone other than their friends and themselves.
So even things like you don't smell good, and you will, indeed, have yellow teeth and what not, are very short-term for them, and they do begin to listen to those kinds of things.
As you know, the national PTA has been involved in tobacco awareness for our own parents since the early '60s, and in fact, right after the first Surgeon General's report, that became a very big part of what we were doing with our own health education for local units. We're real excited that we're able to be part of the Foundation and the Center, because we believe that if we can get information to our grass roots people, that we will make a difference.
We know that if young people don't start smoking before they're 18 we'll, for the most part, probably save those young people, because only about 10 percent of the smokers start after that. So we know that we need to get them early on in grade school, middle school, particularly, we need to be doing a very concentrated effort.
Parents, however, need help, and we know that. It is very difficult to combat that $6-billion-a-year advertising campaign and promotional effort by the tobacco industry. So we are, indeed, putting materials together. We will be celebrating our 11th annual alcohol and other substance abuse awareness week in another month, and tobacco and its uses, indeed, is the focus this year -- and talking to parents about limiting the access of tobacco products, and looking at the promotion and the advertising that you've heard today.
This group has been a terrific testament to how easy it is for young people to get those kinds of products. So we appreciate your support.
Q Plus the addiction starts when you're young. I mean, my Mom, I said before, started when she was 13, and still today she smokes. And I -- me and my Dad have been on her for I don't even know how many years and she'll try for us for maybe a couple of months. Actually, the longest was a year she actually did go without, but it came right back. She got right into it.
Q Chris, wave at that camera and say, "Mom, stop smoking." (Laughter.)
Q Mom, stop smoking. (Laughter.) I don't know, if they don't start when they're young, then you know -- I mean, it's more likely that they will never start. So if we can stop teenagers from starting, then it's more likely that they'll be less smokers in our society.
THE PRESIDENT: One of the biggest problems we have in our country, and one problem I have as President, and one problem everybody who's in a position of any kind of responsibility has is dealing with the tension every human being has between thinking about what's happening right this second, and what's right to do over the long run. And in the world we live in, the wonderful thing about it is that we get some much information about so many things so fast, in ways we never did before, we have so many option we never had before. It's a very exciting time to be alive, but it's also true that people are just being constantly bombarded with all these things. And I think when you're a young person it's just harder to believe that every little thing that you do has a consequence over the long run.
And that's a problem for -- it's been a problem throughout human history. It's part of human nature. But I think it's more difficult for young people today -- and particularly on this issue, which is why I think these groups are so important. All of your efforts really count. And I think that maybe the young people here, maybe that's the most important thing of all. I mean, I can't -- does the peer pressure seem to work? Do you think you have any influence over your classmates?
Q It's worth a try.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. Do they think you're kind of loony or do they think you're doing something good?
Q No. Well, none of my friends smoke, not that I know of, but they all agree with me on the issue. So I'm sure that if I had friends that smoked, I could convince them to stop. But I don't really have any friends that smoke.
Q It's not that easy really. It's really not that easy.
THE PRESIDENT: To convince people?
Q Yes, because a lot of my friends or the people I know, they smoke. And usually I try to -- I find out how they start so I can start there, and go there and try and stop those people from starting to smoke. And I found that most of them started at very young ages because they thought it was cool. And, yeah, that was the most common answer.
So I joined the Students Against Tobacco Power Team at my school, and we usually talk to elementary school-age children about the harmful effects of tobacco products and stuff like that. And that seems -- I couldn't really tell you any numbers or anything like that, but from what I hear from the student feedback, that it seems to leave a lasting impression on them.
THE PRESIDENT: Let me ask a question. Why did you get into this? Why do you care so much about this?
Q Well, my godmother died of a smoking-related illness and that just was it for me. I just -- I decided from then on that I wouldn't do drugs or any sort of thing because I didn't want to suffer that same fate, and I didn't want others like my friends or anybody else to have to deal with what I dealt with.
THE PRESIDENT: What about you?
Q Well, I just got started because I really think smoking is really disgusting. And especially since it kills so many people, it really annoys me how people can -- most people know what they're doing when they smoke and they can still do it. I mean, that really bothers me. So when I joined I just wanted to -- well, first I wanted to stop teenagers and kids from smoking. That was my main purpose at first.
THE PRESIDENT: You were great, all of you. This is very encouraging. I'll do what I can to support you. We'll keep working on it. We'll do it together.
Q Mr. President, can we get your thoughts on the Iowa caucuses today? This is an historic day, obviously, for the American people. One specific thought -- did you think a year ago you would be unopposed for the Democratic presidential nomination?
THE PRESIDENT: I don't know what I thought a year ago. I don't know if I thought about it. I hope I'll win tonight. (Laughter.) That's my thought on the Iowa caucuses. I hope that, as I told -- you know, four years ago, there was effectively no campaign in Iowa because Senator Harkin ran and, as he well should have, he got almost all the votes there. So -- and today, because there appears to be effectively no race in the Democratic caucus primary, I don't know how many people will go tonight. But I hope that the trip over the weekend made an impact. And I believe it did.
I was, frankly, astonished by the size and the enthusiasm of the crowds, and by the response to just a serious discussion of the issues facing the country, and my determination to not let this election divide the American people. And also, not to let the citizens of this country off the hook by saying, oh, I'm cynical, it doesn't make any difference.
Look at these kids. These children here -- especially this young lady who was brave enough to come in the middle -- they are a stunning rebuke to the idea that it does not matter what ordinary citizens do in this country. It does matter what ordinary people do. These kids wrote a letter to the President, they get to come in here and talk about it. And it shows you what people can do if they work together. And so that's what I think people in Iowa responded to.
I was exuberant about the weekend, I thought it was very good. I don't know what's going to happen in the Republican caucus. I don't have any idea. As you all know, the nature of the rules and the size of the turnout has a lot to do with that. So I really don't have a clue what's going to happen.
Q Mr. President, are you concerned that the British are no longer going to deal with Mr. Adams of Sinn Fein?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me say that I think that all the parties are probably assessing and reassessing where they are and what is necessary to do now, but I intend to do whatever I can on behalf of the United States to try to restore the cease-fire and try to get the peace process going again.
I can tell you this -- I believe if you let the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland have a say in this, it wouldn't be close -- they do not want to go back to violence, they want to go forward to peace, and they expect the people who are representing them to be disciplined and mature and to peacefully work this out. That's what they expect to be done. And I just hope and pray it can be done.
And I've been working -- actually, I did some work last week before the cease-fire was broken, and I intend to do some more work this week on it. We will do everything we can to try to get the process back on track.
Q Do you think Gerry Adams can still be trusted after what happened in the last few days?
THE PRESIDENT: I said what I thought about what happened the last few days. We're going to look at all the evidence. We're going to see what we know and what we can do, and I'm going to do what I think is best to try to promote peace there. That's what I'm going to do. And that's all I can do.
Q Are you curious about what Republican candidate is going to emerge?
THE PRESIDENT: (Laughter.) Well, I expect I'll know something by what happens in Iowa tonight. At least if the results are clear before bedtime. I'm just like you, I honestly don't know what's going to happen. And I have found it's not very fruitful to spend your time speculating on things over which you have no influence. And I have no intention in participating in the Republican primary. I'll let them decide who they want to run.
Q Do you like watching them fight it out among themselves?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't know how to answer that. (Laughter.)
END 2:00 P.M. EST