Tuesday February 5, 2013

STOCKBRIDGE

When tobacco companies started taking heat for the products they were selling in the 1990s they realized they needed to expand their market in order to ensure their financial future. The Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit against them in 1994 in order to recover billions of dollars in long term costs related to treating ill smokers covered by federal health programs. The lawsuit alleged that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer and other diseases and said that tobacco firms concealed the risks of smoking from the public. So the companies began a campaign to recruit "replacement smokers" -- and those replacements included younger consumers.

According to the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids, the major tobacco companies now spend $8.5 billion per year -- more than $23 million every day -- to promote their products, and many of their marketing efforts directly reach kids. A 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, reports 2.4 million children between the ages of 12 and 17 tried cigarettes for the first time, compared with 1.9 million in 2002 and 2.1 million in 2004. For every 4,000 children who try a cigarette for the first time, 1,000 become daily smokers,

Two years ago, the FDA introduced new regulations limiting tobacco sales and promotions to young people. Public-health advocates call the new federal regulations an important first step since they apply to all tobacco companies operating in all states. Similar regulations in firearm sales and promotions could be the kind of first step the country needs right now as we look for ways to protect children from gun violence.

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It shouldn’t come as a surprise that gun organizations, worried about restrictions on buying guns and the decline in shooting sports interest, are beginning to market firearms to children. An article in The New York Times last week reported that as the industry "seeks to widen access to firearms," its strategies include "giving firearms, ammunition and cash to youth groups; weakening state restrictions on hunting by young children, marketing an affordable military-style rifle for ‘junior shooters’ and sponsoring semi-automatic handgun competitions for youth, and developing a video game that promotes brand name weapons, with links to the Web sites of their makers."

A report that came out last year, commissioned by the shooting sports industry, states that one way to boost interest and sales is to encourage children 8 to 17 years old to recruit others to shooting sports "and help introduce wary youngsters to guns slowly, perhaps through paintball, archery, or some other less intimidating activity. The next step is to move to actual firearms."

In fact, the next step is to put limitations on the gun industry whose latest initiatives include introducing children to high-powered rifles and handguns, and increasing monetary grants to youth organizations. In the last seven years, the NRA has more than doubled the grants it gives to youth shooting programs.

Children don’t need to start shooting at an early age anymore than they should start smoking young. They certainly don’t need to shoot semiautomatic guns as part of a family-fun activity. But the publication, Junior Shooters, features articles and ads that review and promote guns like Sturm, Ruger’s new lightweight semi-automatic rifle. One article "featured a smiling 15-year-old girl clutching a semiautomatic rifle" and extolled " target shooting with a Bushmaster AR-15."

The editor, Andy Fink claims semi-automatic weapons "are a tool, not any different from a car or a baseball bat." Since neither a car or a baseball bat is a tool, perhaps Mr. Fink does not really know what a gun is or does. According to Webster’s, a car is a machine, a baseball bat is an implement, and a gun is a weapon.

It’s clear that there is a lot of delusion in the arguments against gun control -- like the one claiming that firearms can teach children life skills. As Dr. Jess Shatkin, director of undergraduate studies in child and adolescent health pointed out, "young people are naturally impulsive, their brains are engineered to take risks." There are better ways to teach life skills than through semi-automatic gun shooting.

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There has been a freeze on gun violence research ever since the Centers for Disease Control began moving forward in studying it as a public health problem 17 years ago. The findings "contradicted NRA ideology according to the Times. The gun lobby influenced Congress to prohibit the CDC from using federal money for research on "causes and prevention of gun violence." One of President Obama’s executive orders on gun control is to provide funding to the CDC and other federal agencies to resume its research on gun violence.

I don’t think I am delusional in believing there will be clear evidence that gun violence is a public health threat -- just as smoking cigarettes proved to be.

Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.