Kids and cigs

January 11, 2007

The American Lung Association issued a report this week grading states on how well they control tobacco. In most areas, Maryland received so-so marks. That's not surprising.

While Maryland has banned smoking in the workplace, most bars and many restaurants across the state are exempted despite the growing national (and international) trend to the contrary. But in one troubling category, Maryland earned an outright failing grade: for not keeping tobacco out of the hands of children.

The report criticizes state officials for not banning open displays of cigarettes , for not mandating that merchants request photo identification of any customer who appears to be a minor, and for not directing state police or any other state agency to enforce restrictions on tobacco vendors.

Some of that criticism is a bit picayune (merchants may not be required to ask for ID, but the law indirectly requires it by imposing fines on those who are caught selling to underage buyers), but the antismoking advocates are clearly on to something. Because of budget cuts and spotty enforcement, Maryland's tobacco cessation efforts appear to have stalled in recent years, and young people have been harmed by that.

It's difficult to know how many people under the age of 18 smoke because the budget for annual surveys was cut several years ago. So was money that went to statewide anti- smoking media campaigns aimed at kids.

What's needed are some legal tweaks and a reasonable level of funding. The proposed $1 increase in the state's tobacco tax is likely to discourage more teens from buying cigarettes. But it would also be helpful to raise the penalties for selling tobacco to a minor and to ban self-service tobacco displays - as Baltimore and several counties already have. Maryland's comptroller has the authority to suspend the license of tobacco dealers found repeatedly violating the law - and advocates are confident Comptroller-elect Peter Franchot will do so far more often than his predecessors.

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