Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World Review August 24, 2000 / 23 Menachem-Av, 5760

Philip Terzian

JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
James Glassman
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Debbie Schlussel
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Social progress on one front, regression on the other -- CHRONICLERS of social trends will observe, with delight, two seemingly contradictory statistics.

According to the experts, at a moment when the birth rate among teenagers is at its lowest rate since 1957, the use of tobacco among undergraduates is at its highest rate in years. Progress on one front, regression on the other.

The experts are not necessarily puzzled by these developments -- as always, they have soundbite-worthy explanations -- but that is only because different sets of experts have furnished these statistics. If they had been announced in tandem, they would have taxed the ingenuity of those who compile and assess such information. For the past several years we have been emphasizing the dangers of early, unwanted pregnancy, and we have certainly been preaching about the evils of tobacco. But why should the young respond to one stimulus while ignoring another?

Most startling, of course, is the idea that teens are getting pregnant at lower statistical rates today than they were 43 years ago.

It is the received wisdom that the 1950s were a golden age of adolescent responsibility: A "simpler time" when Ike was in the White House, Norman Rockwell was painting magazine covers, and the young were dancing at sock hops, not marching in the streets against government trade policies. But of course, life in the 1950s (as in every era) was more complicated than we think. Drugs were not a huge problem among adolescents in those days, and pop culture was decidedly less vulgar than it is now. But "juvenile delinquency" was no laughing matter to sociologists, newspaper columnists and high school principals. The postwar invention of teenagers yielded problems no one had anticipated: The absece of war and depression did not produce happiness but (ital) ennui (unital) among the kids, and affluence merely exacerbated the boredom. So young girls got pregnant, even in an era when Jack Paar was censored for mentioning a euphemism for toilet on "The Tonight Show."

There are also economic/biological explanations. In the 1940s and '50s, when such statistics were first compiled, people tended to marry at an earlier age than they do today. In 1957 a high school diploma was often sufficient for gainful employment to support a family; and of course, females were more likely to get married than join the work force. Nowadays adolescents postpone adulthood with some form of post-secondary schooling, venereal diseases (including AIDS) have had a dampening effect on sex, and abortion has made shotgun marriages obsolete.

The interesting fact is that all of this has tended to occur in the nature of things. Even if social scientists had never warned about the scourge of teenage pregnancy, or Daniel P. Moynihan had never wrung his hands about "babies having babies," it would have happened anyway. As the economy has grown more service-oriented, the value of a high school diploma has declined. The 1960s saw a reduction in the birth rate; Baby Boomers tended to get married later in life than their parents. All of this took place in the absence of government policy.

The same can scarcely be said about smoking. It is true that the medical dangers of tobacco have been known since the 18th century, and that the perils of cigarettes have been folklore for a century. But it is only within the past generation (since the surgeon general's 1964 report) that the government has taken an active role in discouraging smoking. In 1957, when teenage girls were getting pregnant with abandon, politicians smoked in public, diners smoked in restaurants, flyers smoked on airplanes, and Mike Wallace was on television extolling the virtues of recessed filters.

Since then, a combination of official policies has hd its effect: Tobacco advertising was banned on television in 1971, smoking is now forbidden in many enclosed public spaces, and lawyers, private and public, have practiced extortion against the industry. As a result, the consumption of cigarettes among older Americans is significantly lower than in the past.

That's no great surprise: As people move closer to mortality, they are less likely to engage in lethal behavior. By the same token, it should come as no surprise that the more young people, especially college students, are warned about the evils of smoking -- hectored, cajoled, coerced and patronized -- the more likely they are to defy their elders' wishes. The adults who wag their fingers about cigarettes today were the adolescents who snickered at screenings of Reefer Madness.

It's a losing battle, for contemporary adolescents are not so different from their forbears. And for proof you need look no further than the disapproving description of today's undergraduate smokers, provided by Dr. Nancy Rigotti of the Harvard School of Public Health.

They are, she says, "more likely to be white, single, and experimenting with other risky behaviors, such as binge drinking, using marijuana, and having more sexual partners. Tobacco use also appears to be part of a college lifestyle that values social life over educational ahcievemnent, athletic participation or religion."

You said it, Dr. Rigotti.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


08/21/00: The beat goes awry
08/17/00: The unwelcome democrat

© 2000, Philip Terzian