Tobacco wins, kids lose

March 29, 2001|By Taylor Branch

FOUR YEARS AGO, the Maryland legislature rejected a bill to punish adults who sell cigarettes illegally to children.

Tobacco lobbyists argued that the comptroller was handling state enforcement already, and the session ended before Louis L. Goldstein candidly advised the House of Delegates that his office had not cited a single merchant during the entire decade. Not one.

Lobbyists struck again last Thursday, when no-shows left a committee majority two votes short of the required number for an expected floor debate. House Bill 437 would have provided Maryland's first program of compliance checks, with stiff penalties for merchants who violate the tobacco laws. The bill aimed directly at the hands that take money to addict our children. It addressed adult complicity for the same reason that Maryland law bans tobacco sales to minors -- children are too young to bear sole responsibility for the fateful decision to smoke.

Surely there are few public issues with stakes so high. A state program to combat illegal youth smoking can reduce Maryland's cancer rates and save literally thousands of lives. About 60 Maryland young people, averaging age 14, become regular smokers every day -- about 20,000 per year.

Unless something is done, today's young smokers will become tomorrow's casualties, swelling our state's sad toll of 3,300 new lung cancer cases each year. The lethal tide is slow but immense: asthma, heart disease, emphysema. More women now die of lung cancer than of breast cancer.

Maryland citizens have been blind to tobacco's rope-a-dope strategy. Thinking we are heavily deployed to control tobacco, we scarcely notice the utter lack of enforcement. We would never dream of allowing dynamite or strychnine to be sold in ways we casually accept for the sale of cigarettes. Lulled by Philip Morris' actor-merchants who refuse young customers on television, we don't worry about real merchants who sell half a billion packs of cigarettes to children every year.

All states ban the sale of cigarettes to minors, and yet youth smoking is up roughly 73 percent nationwide in the past decade. This is an alarming countertrend to the health strides made by adults, who have struggled not to smoke in huge numbers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, minors have replaced young adults as the prime source of new smokers. Adolescents vastly underestimate the addictive power of nicotine. Most plan to quit smoking within five years, but of these three-quarters fail. Seventy percent of all smoking children say they wish they had never started.

A program of compliance checks can be simple and virtually cost-free, but it will require political leadership to bring together courts and state officials for enforcement. Civic groups and media outlets can honor those merchants who do not sell illegally to minors while publicizing those who do.

The first substantial penalties imposed on violators will begin to shift our commercial climate decisively against tobacco sales to minors. Such enforcement is no more hostile to retail business than codes banning tainted and unsanitary food in restaurants. In fact, fair and effective enforcement will protect honest merchants from unscrupulous competitors.

Until we deal squarely with the complicity of adults in illegal tobacco sales, we compromise any message we hope to send young people. Teen-agers talk among themselves about the "street reality" of easy access to tobacco, and they are keenly sensitive to mixed messages. They know that behind the gaudy "We Card" signs, lawbreaking tobacco merchants are effectively immune from fine or prosecution.

Whereas our police and courts are massively engaged to protect us against alcohol and speed on the highways, they ignore those who sell tobacco to middle school students. Last month, The Sun published a map of 34 street intersections where officials have installed cameras to catch motorists who run red lights. There is no hint of such effort to protect children from illicit tobacco.

Parents and voters cannot allow Maryland to fail against the greatest public health menace of our time. An enforcement program such as House Bill 437 offered "tough love" that fosters respect for the law, builds hope and invites every citizen to help safeguard our future. It is both visionary and practical.

By confronting retail tobacco, and requiring integrity of our businesses, we can begin to make good on our expressed devotion to Maryland's young people.

Taylor Branch is a Baltimore writer. With Harry Belafonte, he is executive producer of a forthcoming ABC miniseries called "Parting the Waters," based on his books about the civil rights era.

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