Lung association says Md. fails to bar teens' access to cigarettes

Other state tobacco efforts earn high marks in report

January 07, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

A national assessment of state tobacco-control measures by the American Lung Association has given Maryland an "F" in restricting youth access to cigarettes while giving the state high marks in other areas of anti-smoking policy.

The lung association called Maryland laws prohibiting cigarette sales to minors "weak and often unenforced." Twenty-seven other states were given the same failing grade on underage sales in the group's report, the first of its kind.

Debra Southerland, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association of Maryland, said many retailers in the state are willing to risk modest fines to sell cigarettes to people younger than the legal age of 18. Maximum state fines for selling to underage customers are $300 for first-time offenders and as much as $3,000 for repeat offenders.

"Sometimes retailers look at it as the cost of doing business," Southerland said. "If you go ahead and sell to a minor, you may end up with a lifelong customer."

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. noted that his office has taken many steps to reduce sales to minors, including carrying out periodic sting operations in which teen-agers are sent to buy cigarettes. But he said he does not quarrel with the idea that the state and local jurisdictions should do more.

"We're not pleased with the F," Curran said. "But if children are still buying cigarettes, maybe we deserve it. I hope it will be a serious wake-up call for retailers that they have to stop selling to children."

In the last sting operation directed by Curran's office, in 2001, underage teen-agers were able to buy cigarettes in 62 percent of their attempts. The attorney general's office later prepared a brochure advising retailers on how to prevent such sales and sent it to 7,000 outlets around the state.

Kathleen Hoke Dachille, director of the Legal Resource Center for Tobacco Regulation, Litigation and Advocacy at the University of Maryland School of Law, said Howard, Montgomery and Prince Georges counties and Baltimore City have created local units to enforce the ban on sales to minors. Those efforts have significantly cut illegal sales, she said.

A bill to create a statewide enforcement system failed in the General Assembly last year, but has a good chance of passing this year, she said.

The lung association credits the state for having tough restrictions on cigarette vending machines, but faults it for other policies, such as not requiring store clerks to examine photo identification before selling cigarettes.

In other areas of tobacco control, the lung association gave Maryland an "A" in spending on smoking prevention, a "B" in controls on indoor smoking and a "B" on cigarette taxes, at $1 per pack.

Southerland, of the lung association, said her group is concerned that the administration of Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. may not maintain the same commitment to anti-smoking programs shown by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Ehrlich has said he opposes a further increase in the cigarette tax.

"Maryland's high grades are for the commitment we've made, not for the outcome, which we won't know for several years," she said.

After youth smoking rose during the 1990s, it has been declining in Maryland and the nation. The smoking rate reported among high school students nationally last year was the lowest in a decade.

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