Children and smoking

March 23, 1995

Question: Why would a state that has banned the sale of cigarettes to minors for more than a century fail to enforce it seriously? Answer: Because its legislators don't really care whether kids get hooked on nicotine.

It's hard to escape that conclusion from the behavior of the Maryland legislature. Asked to adopt measures that would make it harder for minors to buy cigarettes -- forbidden since 1887 -- the General Assembly has declined. Again this year state officials requested some relatively simple steps that would help them enforce the law. And again the legislature caved in to the tobacco lobby.

A working group of state attorneys general, including Maryland's J. Joseph Curran, Jr., compiled data that make an irrefutable case for strictly policing the sale of tobacco products to minors. Three-fourths of smokers in one survey said they started before they were 18, the legal age for sales to minors in every state. According to a U.S. surgeon general's study last year, the earlier a smoker started the harder it was to quit and the more likely the smoker would succumb to one of the ailments associated with smoking.

What's worse, minors have little trouble buying tobacco. One study conducted for the vending machine industry said 72 percent of teen age smokers bought their own. In most surveys the adolescents said they bought cigarettes directly from stores, but the younger ones were more likely to use vending machines surreptitiously.

Despite this evidence, the House Environmental Matters Committee this week summarily killed a bill that would have barred cigarette vending machines from places often frequented by children and would have imposed stricter penalties on merchants who persist in selling tobacco to them. Backed by the new health secretary, Dr. Martin Wasserman, as well as Mr. Curran, the bill would also have permitted officials to test merchants by sending youths in to buy cigarettes, much as police check on liquor stores.

Places frequented by adults, such as taverns, businesses or private clubs, could have had vending machines, but merchants would have been held responsible if children used them, just as a store owner is now responsible for selling tobacco products to them over the counter.

It's a mockery to legislate against selling cigarettes to kids while refusing to enact effective enforcement. Who do Maryland's legislators represent, their constituents or the tobacco peddlers? This week's actions speak louder than all their pious words.

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