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Toughen Laws on Sale of Tobacco to Minors, Sullivan Urges

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Washington--Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan last week urged states to adopt legislation preventing the sale of tobacco products to minors and called for a ban on cigarette-vending machines.

Dr. Sullivan unveiled his proposed model legislation for states after releasing a study charging that existing state laws designed to limit minors' access to tobacco are virtually unenforced.

Dr. Sullivan said the study, which was conducted by the department's Office of Inspector General, concluded that the laws adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia to prohibit the sale of cigarettes to minors "are being blatantly ignored."

"The findings boil down to this simple and unacceptable fact: our children can easily buy cigarettes virtually any time they want to in violation of the law," Dr. Sullivan told members of the Senate Finance Committee, which held a hearing last week on the health effects of smoking.

The study found that only five states monitored how many times vendors broke the law in 1989, for a total of 32 violations. A sixth state, Utah, was a statistical exception: 4,476 violations were issued to minors for purchasing or possessing tobacco, the study indicated.

Two-thirds of the state public-health officials surveyed said there was virtually no enforcement of such laws in their states. And both the children and the vendors surveyed agreed that it was easy for young people to purchase cigarettes.

Because laws that prohibit theel15lsale of tobacco to minors are usually criminal statutes, only police officers can enforce them, the study noted. But law-enforcement officials said the tobacco laws are not a priority.

Bill's Provisions

To better enforce these laws, Dr. Sullivan called on states to create a licensing system for the sale of tobacco. Like the laws governing the sale of alcohol, the Secretary's proposal would allow merchants to sell tobacco to adults only if they avoid selling tobacco to minors.

The legislation also suggests that states adopt:

  • A graduated schedule of penalties for merchants who violate the law.
  • Civil penalities, rather than criminal ones, for violators.
  • A law allowing state and local authorities other than the police to investigate compliance with the law.
  • A ban on the use of vending machines to sell cigarettes. The National Automatic Merchandising Association estimates that vending machines account for 16 percent of illegal cigarette sales to minors.--ef

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