Stop the vending machine charade Youth smoking: Curbing easy access would lower illegal tobacco sales to minors.

March 05, 1997

FOR PUBLIC officials who want to improve the welfare of young people, there are plenty of good targets. Reckless driving, drug and alcohol abuse, risky sexual behavior -- all these can cause debility or death. But none compares with smoking.

Yet despite the progress Maryland has made in discouraging smoking among adults and creating smoke-free public areas, smoking among the state's high school students is increasing rapidly. Why? In large part, because cigarettes are as readily available to young people as the nearest vending machine.

Like all states, Maryland has laws against selling cigarettes to minors. But enforcement is virtually non-existent. During spot-checks last summer, under-age young people succeeded in buying cigarettes at 110 of 115 vending machine sites and in almost half the over-the-counter transactions they attempted. Even so, not a single violation notice was issued.

In 1992, five seventh-grade girls in Columbia selected 10 stores and succeeded in buying cigarettes at eight of them. When a girl had problems working a vending machine, a clerk came over to help her. Clearly, Maryland's laws against selling cigarettes to minors have failed.

We would hope legislators have gotten the word. They have a chance to prove it this session, not just in voting for higher tobacco taxes, but also in voting to outlaw all cigarette sales from vending machines.

Federal regulations announced by President Clinton include a ban on vending machine sales later this year. But legal challenges could postpone its effective date. In the meantime, Maryland could discourage thousands of young people from forming an addiction many of them will never break.

Tobacco is by far the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States. And as anti-drug counselors note, when teen-agers sneak a smoke, they learn to hide their behavior. When their illegal tobacco purchases elicit little or no adult concern, they lose respect for laws against the use of other drugs. When they inhale to prompt a mood change, they learn to depend on chemicals to get through the day.

Those are the lessons taught by Maryland's limp-wristed approach to under-age smoking. Legislators need to ask themselves: Is the tobacco lobby stronger than their concern for kids? If not, they ought to do everything possible this session to enforce the laws on tobacco sales to minors -- including a ban on dispensing cigarettes in vending machines.

Pub Date: 3/05/97

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