Anti-smoking activists, alarmed at the rate of smoking among young people--and by advertising that seems designed to hook even more young smokers--have begun to push at all levels of government for more effective means of discouraging early tobacco use.
In recent months, several states and localities have taken action to ban smoking in public schools, outlaw or greatly restrict the availability of cigarette vending machines, and jail or fine merchants who sell tobacco products to minors.
And at the federal level, Senator Edward M. Kennedy last week, responding to concerns that tobacco companies may be targeting their products to children and adolescents, launched an anti-tobacco initiative that would encourage education programs aimed at smoking-prevention.
The move to limit minors’ access to tobacco is, as Angela Mickel, director of the legislative clearinghouse for Tobacco-Free America, puts it, “hot this year.”
Although 44 states and the District of Columbia have established a minimum age for purchasing tobacco--ranging from 16 to 19 years--such laws typically are not well-enforced, Ms. Mickel said.
Five states have tried to limit access by putting restrictions on vending-machine sales. And last week, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York submitted legislation that would not only prohibit the unsolicited distribution of tobacco products, but also ban their sale in most vending machines.
Since last fall, 10 Minnesota communities have decided to ban all cigarette vending machines, and 10 others have passed partial bans.
The local governments were moved to action by the findings of a study conducted by researchers from the University of Minnesota’s school of public health. Conducted in three communities last spring, it found that adolescents below age 18, the state’s legal age for buying tobacco, rarely were prevented from purchasing cigarettes from vending machines.
One of the communities included in the study, White Bear Lake, enacted in October what is thought to be the first outright ban on cigarette vending machines in the country.
In addition, a police “sting” operation has resulted in the arrest of four Minnesota store clerks who sold cigarettes to underaged decoys cooperating with the police. A state law that went into effect in July sets maximum penalties of up to a year in prison and a $3,000 fine for anyone convicted of selling tobacco to minors.
In Wisconsin, a bill that would prohibit smoking on all public-school property has been passed overwhelmingly by the state Assembly.
Before approving the bill by an 81-to-14 vote, lawmakers rejected several amendments to allow students to smoke in designated areas outside school buildings, and teachers to smoke in faculty lounges. The bill will now be returned to the Senate, which earlier approved a different version.
“We had to send a clear, unhypocritical message to teenagers that smoking is bad for your health,” said Representative Barbara Notestein, the bill’s sponsor.
Senator Kennedy’s bill, the subject of a Labor and Human Resources Committee hearing last week, would provide $185 million for anti-smoking programs. Of that, $50 million would go for incentive grants to states to enact and enforce laws that prevent the sale of tobacco to minors, and $25 million would go to encourage schools to become smoke-free.
“Smoking is public-health enemy number one in America today,” Mr. Kennedy said. “We are not serious about public health unless we get serious about reducing tobacco use.”
The hearing came less than a week after reports that the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company plans to introduce a new cigarette brand, “Dakota,’' with an advertising campaign that specifically targets young, blue-collar women between the ages of 18 and 24.
At the hearing, Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan said he was “troubled” and “outraged” by the marketing plan.
“No one believes the tobacco companies when they say they are not targeting young people,” he said.
But Charles O. Whitely, a repre4sentative of the Tobacco Institute, said tobacco advertisements are designed to convince current smokers to switch brands. “The cigarette industry does not want young people to smoke,” he said.
Health and anti-tobacco advocates countered that, because more adults and better-educated individuals have quit smoking, tobacco companies have been forced to target products to the few groups where growing numbers continue to smoke: minorities, school dropouts, and young women.
According to an hhs report released at the hearing, 90 percent of adult smokers began before the age of 20, and smoking costs the country $52 billion a year in health-care costs and lost productivity.
The findings of a federally funded survey of high-school seniors released this month indicate that despite widespread publicity about the health risks associated with smoking, many students continue to use tobacco. The University of Michigan study found that 18.9 percent of the seniors nationally smoked daily in 1989, up from 18.1 percent the previous year.
Mr. Kennedy’s bill would create a separate federal center within the Public Health Service to regulate tobacco and to fund advertisements that discourage smoking. It would also allow states and localities to regulate cigarette advertising.
A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 1990 edition of Education Week as Anti-Smoking Efforts Focus on Curbing Youths’ Use