[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book I)]
[June 15, 1998]
[Pages 966-968]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks to the Presidential Scholars
June 15, 1998

    Thank you very much. Welcome to the White House. I want to thank 
Bruce Reed for his service, and I want to 
thank him for making a joke about how young he looks and saving me the 
trouble of doing it. [Laughter]
    Secretary Shalala, Deputy Secretary of 
Education Smith, to the Commission on 
Presidential Scholars and its Chair, Stuart Moldaw, to the cosponsors, the corporate sponsors, as well as the 
families and teachers and friends of the scholars here today, and most 
of all to you scholars, welcome to the White House. I hope you have 
enjoyed the day so far. I want to begin by thanking the United States 
Marine Band, this year celebrating its 200th anniversary as the 
President's band, playing for you.
    The Presidential Scholars Award dates back to 1964 when President 
Johnson signed an Executive order, and I quote, ``to recognize the most 
precious resource of the United States--the brainpower of its young 
people.'' Today I look out across a group of young people whose 
brainpower could light up this entire city. Someday, many of you 
doubtless will light up this entire city. Already you have enriched your 
communities by your activities in music, art, athletics, and citizen 
service. I'm especially grateful to those of you who have helped to 
mentor or tutor children who need your help.
    As you look ahead to further academic success, let me say that I 
very much hope you will continue to pursue other interests as well, 
including community service. And I hope you will become increasingly 
involved as citizens in the great issues of today and tomorrow.
    We are going through a period of profound change. You are on the 
edge of a new century and a new millennium. We are very fortunate that 
this is such a good time for America. And every day I get up and give 
thanks for the fact that we have the lowest crime rate in 25 years, the 
lowest unemployment rate in 28 years, the lowest welfare rolls in 29 
years. We're about to have the first balanced budget and surplus in 29 
years, the lowest inflation in 32 years. We have the smallest Federal 
Government in 35 years, the highest homeownership in history. Inequality 
among different classes of working people is going down, and millions of 
children have been lifted out of poverty in the last 5 years. I am 
grateful for that.
    But in that kind of environment, where the American people feel 
great confidence and where your future looks so bright, it seems to me 
that as a people we have two different choices: We can do what people 
usually do in good times--we can relax and enjoy them; or we can do what 
we should do--we should recognize that things are changing dramatically 
in our country and in the world, that we still have enormous challenges 
facing us in this new century, and we should be bold and look ahead to 
the future, to your future, to the world your children will live in, and 
act now, when we have the prosperity, the security, and the confidence 
to act on the long-term challenges of the country. There are many.
    Next year I believe we have to reform Social Security and Medicare 
so that when we baby boomers retire, we don't bankrupt our children and 
undermine our children's ability to raise our grandchildren. I believe 
we have to make our public schools the best in the world, just like our 
colleges and universities are now. I believe we have to deal with the 
growing problems of crime and violence among children and families. I 
think we still have economic challenges in the inner cities and isolated 
rural areas. I

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believe we have to prove that we can grow the economy and improve the 
environment, not continue to destruct it. I believe we have serious 
challenges, long-term, if we want to be the world's leading force for 
peace and freedom in the world, as the recent nuclear tests in India and 
Pakistan indicate, as the continuing turmoil in Kosovo indicates, as all 
the ethnic and religious and racial strife in the rest of the world 
    So we have these big challenges. And I have been hammering and 
hammering and hammering these last several months, here with the 
Congress and out in the country, that we owe you--our generation owes 
you our best efforts to deal with the long-term challenges of the 
country in these good times, not simply to relax and enjoy them, because 
nothing like this lasts forever. It is an opportunity, an opportunity to 
relax or to move forward. I think we have to more forward.
    I'd like to talk to you about one such issue today, because I think 
it is profoundly important to your future and to children coming along 
just behind you. And that is our obligation to curtail what has become a 
deadly epidemic of teenage smoking. In 1964, the very year President 
Johnson started the Presidential Scholars program--when, coincidentally, 
I was exactly your age, but unlike Bruce Reed, didn't win one--
[laughter]--the U.S. Surgeon General presented the landmark report 
linking smoking and cancer. Today we're on the verge of making dramatic 
progress in our fight against teen smoking. We have a once-in-a-lifetime 
opportunity to pass comprehensive antismoking legislation that can save 
a million Americans from premature, painful, preventable deaths just 
over the next 5 years.
    Senator McCain and others have brought to 
the floor a principled and bipartisan proposal to protect children from 
tobacco. It raises the price of cigarettes by $1.10 a pack over the next 
5 years, the single most important step we can take to reduce teen 
smoking. It imposes tough penalties on tobacco companies if youth 
smoking doesn't decline by two-thirds over the next decade. It gives the 
Food and Drug Administration full authority over tobacco products. It 
provides for a nationwide counteradvertising campaign for prevention, 
for smoking cessation programs, and tough enforcement measures to stop 
retailers from selling cigarettes to minors, something that is illegal 
now in all 50 States, even though a huge percentage of people under 18 
but over 13 have tried cigarettes. It provides assistance to the tobacco 
farmers who have done nothing wrong. It funds a major increase in health 
research at the National Institute of Health and the Centers for Disease 
Control. And it returns to States funds to reimburse them for the 
massive amount of money they have already spent in helping to deal with 
the effects of smoking-related diseases, to be spent on health care and 
child care.
    The McCain bill began as the strongest anti-youth-smoking 
legislation in history; it has been made stronger still. In the past 
week it has gained momentum as members of both parties offered 
amendments to fight teen drug use and to provide for tax relief for low 
and middle income families. I don't see how any Senator can now stand in 
the way of a bill that fights drugs, cuts taxes, and protects young 
people from a habit that kills.
    It's been almost exactly a year since the State attorneys general 
proposal for a settlement brought comprehensive legislation to our 
Congress, a month since the Senate began to consider the issue. I urge 
the Senate to act now. Every day the Senate delays plays into the hands 
of the tobacco industry, which wants desperately to kill this bill and 
which is spending millions and millions of dollars on an advertising 
campaign designed to convince the American people this is nothing more 
than a big government tax increase to create huge big government 
bureaucracies. It is absolutely false.
    I just came back from California and Oregon, and I traveled around a 
lot in automobiles and had the chance to hear some of the advertising 
being run by the tobacco companies. And I thought to myself, it's not 
true, but it sounds good. They basically say, ``Forget about the fact 
that we didn't tell the truth to the American people for years, about 
our efforts to recruit teenagers to smoke illegally, about our 
memorandum which called them replacement smokers. Forget about the fact 
that we covered up for years the fact that we knew that tobacco was 
addictive. Just channel your well-known hatred of Government and taxes 
against this bill.''
    And unfortunately, the Cancer Society, the Heart Association, the 
Lung Association, the people who stand with us on this legislation, 
don't have anything like the money that the tobacco companies have to 
put on ads that answer that.

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    Those of us in politics know that unanswered ads can sometimes be 
fatal. Well, if they're fatal this year, they will be fatal to young 
children who continue to be seduced and sold illegally cigarettes that 
will shorten their lives.
    Remember that every year smoking-related illnesses cause more deaths 
than AIDS, alcohol, drugs, car accidents, fires, and murders combined. 
This is an important thing to do. So I ask you all, remember that 3,000 
young children start to smoke every day, illegally; 1,000 will have 
their lives shortened because of it. The delays must come to an end. I 
ask the American people to make their voices heard. I ask the United 
States Senate to think about the Presidential Scholars here and all the 
young people they represent and pass the McCain bill this week. 
[Applause] Thank you.
    I know many of the scholars here feel just as strongly as I do. 
Patrick LaRochelle from Signal Mountain, 
Tennessee, has been running 4\1/2\ minute miles. I never did that. 
[Laughter] He would sooner put on lead shoes than smoke a cigarette. 
Alex Blane, from Charlotte, North Carolina, has 
aunts and uncles and friends who have worked on tobacco farms. Yet every 
single one of them is adamant that smoking should be a habit young 
people never start.
    So I ask all of you whose communities look up to you: Help your 
young friends take a stand against peer pressure; help them take 
responsibility for their health in every way. At the national level we 
can and must make it more difficult from cigarette companies to market 
to teens. But to really cure our country of this significant public 
health challenge, we need the help of parents and siblings, teachers and 
coaches, and role models like you. The 21st century will be the time of 
greatest opportunity in all human history. I want every American young 
person to be able to enjoy it to the fullest.
    Congratulations, and God bless you. Good luck.

Note: The President spoke at 2:40 p.m. on the South Lawn at the White