Annapolis becomes an outrage-free zone

March 30, 1997|By Sara Engram

IF THE TOBACCO industry is fast losing favor with the American public, the word hasn't reached most members of the Maryland General Assembly.

In their infinite wisdom, they have voted to crack down on drivers who run red lights or don't wear seat belts, perhaps leading to a change in public behavior that could save a handful of precious lives a year.

But face the legislature with a true killer -- tobacco -- and they refuse even to allow the state to enforce its own laws against selling tobacco products to minors. Go figure.

Despite the law against sales to minors, cigarettes are freely available through vending machines. As long as the machines have a sticker saying it's illegal for minors to use them, the proprietors are free from any liability should a young person break the law.

And God forbid that the state actually enforce its ban on over-the-counter sales. A bill to authorize sting operations failed miserably, as did attempts to ban vending-machine sales.

A modest increase in the tobacco tax has won approval in the House of Delegates, but its prospects in the state Senate are dim at best.

Meanwhile, thousands of Maryland teen-agers will easily buy cigarettes this year and develop addictions they cannot break. Many will eventually die from lung-cancer and other smoking-related diseases.

Maryland's ignominiously high ranking in cancer rates -- and the prospect of literally saving thousands of lives -- has still not been able to overcome the clout of the tobacco lobbyists.

Yes, you can argue that adults who smoke ought to have access to a product they depend on. And you can worry about the fate of tobacco farmers -- although it's worth noting that curbing addiction here shouldn't hurt them too badly since they sell much of their crop overseas.

But why outlaw sales to minors, then make it impossible to enforce the law?

Some frustrated citizens are even wondering whether they will have to resort to a lawsuit filed by parents whose children have become addicted to tobacco, suing the state for failing to enforce its own laws.

Clearly Maryland -- and most other states -- are sending mixed messages on tobacco use. Combine limp-wristed law enforcement with the powerful lure of tobacco advertising and it's no surprise that smoking by teens and even younger children is on the rise.

Experts on drug abuse will also note that this does not bode well for the nation's war on drugs. Tobacco is considered a gateway substance to more risky addictions, for several reasons.

When young people smoke, they learn to hide their behavior from their parents.

When they can easily buy cigarettes from sales clerks or through vending machines, they learn that adults aren't serious about enforcing laws against addictive substances.

When they become dependent on nicotine, they learn to turn to chemicals to help them get through the day.

If many Maryland legislators -- there are, of course, shining exceptions -- seem oblivious to these dangers, so is much of American society, despite the giant strides this country has made in creating smoke-free public places. Maryland has been so successful that the smell of smoke in restaurants in other states is often a startling experience.

If we can summon the will to protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke, why can't we be just as serious about protecting the health of our young people? It's not a matter of denying adults their rights, but rather of enforcing decisions we as a society have already made about the availability of a dangerous, addictive product.

If our children had such easy access to pornography, illegal drugs or alcohol, we would be outraged. When it comes to tobacco, the outrage isn't yet there.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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