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Teenagers Have Little Trouble Buying Cigarettes, Survey Finds

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Though every state bans the sale of tobacco products to minors, many of those laws aren't working, a government study shows.

Children nationwide found it easier to buy cigarettes in 1993 than in 1989, according to the study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The research also found that most minors who smoke buy their own cigarettes and that they make most of those purchases at small stores, such as convenience stores.

Federal researchers based their analysis on data from the 1989 and 1993 Teenage Attitudes and Practices surveys, which involved telephone and personal interviews conducted with teenagers drawn from a representative sample of U.S. households. Their report appeared in the CDC's Feb. 16 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Between 1989 and 1993, the percentage of teenage smokers ages 12 to 17 who said they usually bought their own cigarettes increased from 57.5 percent to 61.9 percent.

But the increase was larger among younger smokers. Among 12- to 15-year-olds, the proportion rose 7 percentage points, from 45.4 percent to 52.4 percent. For those ages 16 to 17, the percentage who bought their own cigarettes grew from 66.6 to 69.1.

Of the three main ways teenagers bought cigarettes--at vending machines, large stores, and small stores--the proportion who said they often or sometimes bought from small stores was the only one to increase between 1989 and 1993, rising from 85 percent to 89 percent.

Just over half, 55.3 percent, of minors ages 12 to 17 reported that they had ever been asked to show proof of age when they bought or tried to buy cigarettes.

A study by Massachusetts researchers that tracked compliance with that state's ban on selling tobacco to minors found some improvement since 1986, but concluded that young people can easily obtain cigarettes.

In 1994, boys and girls ages 12 to 17 who were recruited by the researchers made 480 attempts to buy cigarettes from vending machines and over-the-counter outlets. They were successful in 157, or 33 percent, of those tries.

The study by researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester followed on one eight years before and appeared in February's American Journal of Public Health, published by the Washington-based American Public Health Association.

The study found that the youths were almost twice as successful buying from vending machines as they were in making over-the-counter purchases. Forty-two percent of the tries at a vending machine were successful, compared with 23 percent of the attempts at a counter. Overall, the students were asked for proof of age only 28 percent of the time.

Vending machines with lockout devices--which an employee must unlock for the machine to work--did help deter sales, the study found.

Girls had an easier time buying cigarettes, even when the researchers controlled for the fact they may have looked older than their age.

Anxious and depressed teenagers are more than twice as likely to be smokers as their less troubled peers, an Australian study has found.

The study by researchers at the University of Melbourne also found that teenagers who are regular smokers are almost twice as likely as occasional smokers to report high levels of depression and anxiety.

The study, published in the February's American Journal of Public Health, defined regular smokers as those who had smoked three or more days in the past week, and occasional smokers as those who smoked on two or fewer days a week.

The researchers examined smoking habits among 2,525 students in 46 schools who were in the equivalent of 8th, 10th, and 12th grades.

They found a link between psychiatric problems and regular smoking in girls of all the age groups studied, but for boys only in the youngest group.

Teenagers with high levels of anxiety and depression may choose to smoke, the authors say, because they expect psychological and social benefits. Those perceived benefits may outweigh what they perceive as the distant, future health risks.

Instead of focusing on smoking's health hazards, the authors write, anti-smoking messages should enhance the perceptions of personal control among young people and offer advice about alternative strategies for negotiating social situations where the risk for smoking is high.

--Millicent Lawton

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