Underage smokers get share of blame, penalties States, communities, schools crack down on youthful buyers

December 07, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

As Congress prepares to consider landmark legislation intended to reduce underage tobacco use, a growing number of states, cities and schools are taking measures to crack down on what they see as a major cause of the problem: young people themselves.

Over the past year, states such as Florida, Idaho, Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas have passed laws that could result in stiff penalties for minors who try to buy or possess cigarettes or chewing tobacco.

Those convicted could lose their driver's licenses, face fines of up to $1,000 or be imprisoned for up to six months.

Meanwhile, some cities are using undercover police officers to catch youths who smoke, and some schools that test students for marijuana are also screening them for nicotine.

Proponents of the proposed $368.5 billion settlement reached in June between tobacco companies and state attorneys general say the settlement contains measures that are expected to reduce smoking among young people.

Those include bans on tobacco advertising on billboards and in some magazines, removal of cigarette vending machines, an end to tobacco companies' sponsorships of sporting events and concerts, and an end to the sale of products like clothing that bear cigarette or chewing tobacco brand names.

But many anti-smoking experts also say teen-age smoking rates will fall only if the cost of cigarettes rises far more steeply than the 70 cents a pack called for under the proposed settlement.

Some authorities favor an increase of $2 a pack. President Clinton said several months ago that he wants prices to rise by $1.50 a pack over the next decade.

Teen-age smoking rates are lower than they were three decades ago. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 35 percent of high school students are cigarette smokers, and the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future Survey, which follows teen-age smoking trends, has found steady increases in recent years in the number of minors who regularly use tobacco.

Every state and the District of Columbia have laws that ban the sale of tobacco to minors, although public health experts say such laws are ineffective because they are poorly written, rarely enforced, or both. In the past, cities and states have also fined minors caught with cigarettes, though the penalties were light.

But some of the new state laws, which also stiffen penalties on those who sell tobacco products to youths, now hold young people as responsible as adults for violating tobacco laws, said Sarah Perez, a policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"The laws we have seen this year flip things upside down and penalize the minor as well as the retailer," Perez said.

In North Carolina, which has one of the nation's highest smoking rates, a new law took effect last week under which youths under 18 who buy tobacco and those who sell it to them could face fines of up to $1,000 and be sentenced to up to 30 days of community service.

Mike Easley, the state's attorney general, said the new law had initially been aimed only at retailers, but store owners had lobbied legislators hard to increase the penalties on minors.

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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