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Proposed Tobacco Bans Spark Thousands of Student Letters

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Washington

When 6th grader Anna J. Kiel is walking home from Roosevelt Middle School, she sometimes sees 7th and 8th graders walking down the street smoking cigarettes.

"When I look at them ... I think about how they are ruining their lives," she wrote in an October letter to the Food and Drug Administration.

"They might think it's 'cool' now but wait till they are 40 yrs. old and diagnosed with lung cancer. How will they feel then?" asked Anna, who lives in River Forest, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.

Like thousands of other students--and adults--Anna wrote to the FDA last fall to offer her opinion about rules proposed by the Clinton administration that would try to curb teenage smoking by restricting advertising and sales methods.

The topic generated more letters--and certainly more letters from children--than any other proposed FDA rule in recent memory, agency officials said.

Before the comment period ended Jan. 2, more than 640,000 pieces of mail poured in, up to 10,000 letters in one day, officials said. About 90,000 of the letters were individual comments, as opposed to form letters.

In comparison, the rule that mandated nutrition-facts labels on food packages drew about 40,000 pieces of mail a few years ago.

Jim O'Hara, an FDA spokesman, said the agency did not try to tally the number of letters for or against the tobacco regulations or what proportion of the comments came from children. But he said the students' comments count just as much as those from adults.

"We take the letters from children seriously, like we take all the comments," Mr. O'Hara said. "It's important to understand how they see it affecting their behavior, their interests."

The administration's plan, unveiled last August, aims to restrict the marketing of tobacco to minors by barring all vending-machine sales, banning billboard advertisements near schools or playgrounds, and limiting ads in publications read by children to text. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995.)

While the rules are aimed primarily at advertising, the tobacco industry argues that declaring the nicotine in tobacco a drug, and thus subject to regulation, is a step down the road to prohibition.

Representatives of the industry, which has filed suit to block the proposed rules, deny that they market their products to minors and point to voluntary efforts to curb minors' access. They say peer and family influences have a greater bearing than advertising on whether children smoke.

Class Projects

But many students sent letters and drawings supporting the rules, some offering tales of family members who can't quit smoking or have died from related illnesses.

Mike LaBerta, a student at Nichols Middle School in Buffalo, N.Y., said he approved of the billboard ban. "Kids don't need to look out a window and see Joe Camel," Mike wrote, referring to the cartoon camel that is prominent in Camel cigarette ads. "The first thing that goes through that kid's mind is 'That big camel's cool and he smokes, if I smoke I'll be cool too!"'

There were some dissenters, however. Nicole Wagner, a student at A.L. Joslin Elementary School in Oxford, Mass., wrote: "I say no to these laws because I feel that it's their choice and it's not in the government's hands to decide whether or not teens should smoke."

It's clear that some letters, written on lined school paper, were done as a class project. The American Medical Association wrote in September to 20,000 middle school principals, urging them to have teachers, parents, and students write letters supporting the rules.

Paul Werner, a health-education teacher at Penn Yan Middle School in Penn Yan, N.Y., said he was inspired by the AMA letter and got all of the school's 560 students to write.

"It was very easy to get the kids interested," Mr. Werner said. "It gave them a reason to learn how to write a business letter, and gave them a way of expressing a feeling that they had."

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