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Tobacco Industry: Battling for America's Youth

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One need not wonder about the recent rush by tobacco mongers to develop programs that discourage kids from smoking. Sure, their motivation could be the fact that smoking by youngsters is at a 16-year high. But that would be naive.

The motivation is far more simple and self-serving: fear of regulation.

Last Friday, President Clinton declared war on tobacco sales to minors by announcing that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would clamp down on advertising and limit minors' access to tobacco products.

But tobacco companies and their retail allies are working overtime to develop their own antismoking campaigns. Each plan, whether put forth by the tobacco industry or the "No Ifs, Ands, or Butts" campaign by convenience store owners, seeks some type of quid pro quo to get government off their backs. They are portraying themselves as the good guys struggling to keep tobacco away from children, but what they really want is to be left to their own devices.

Much like the "We Card" program of the Coalition for Responsible Tobacco Retailing and other industry-backed youth programs over the past 15 years, the campaign by the National Association of Convenience Stores is a rehash of old ideas that don't work. The programs lack meaningful enforcement mechanisms and incentives for retailers to comply with minimum-age laws. The campaign also does a good job of passing the buck by establishing penalties for employees, rather than employers, who allow minors to make illegal purchases.

Linked to the plan by convenience store owners is model state legislation that mandates employee training but restricts government sting operations that would check on the quality of that training. They would allow only the police to conduct random inspections to verify employee compliance with the law.

Health organizations have a better approach that is consistently opposed by the tobacco industry and retailers. Health groups argue that any effective measure must include regular checks by a government agency to ensure compliance with minimum-age laws; removal of vending machines; mandated fines of store owners for selling to minors; and revocation of licenses for repeat violators.

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