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Smoking, Drinking, Kids

The health and safety of youths is high on everyone's agenda. So what's being done to lessen two major threats in this area: youthful smoking and drinking?

A potentially groundbreaking effort to curb tobacco use by young people failed in Congress this summer. But the confrontation between the cigarette industry and public officials determined to make that industry pay some of the health-care costs incurred by its products goes on.

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The settlement now being negotiated between the attorneys general of eight states and the major tobacco firms they've sued is nearing final form. One thing appears sure: The companies will end up paying around $200 billion over 25 years to reimburse states for Medicaid costs related to smoking. That's a bundle, but considerably less than the $368.5 billion in the now-shelved federal legislation. Moreover, the current deal is not likely to raise the prices of cigarettes through higher taxes - and thus cut consumption.

The states' plan reportedly will include restrictions on billboard advertising, but it'll leave the door open to storefront ads close to schools, print advertising, and tobacco sponsorship of major sports events. The plan includes some steps toward a national antismoking educational campaign, but it's unclear whether the program will be funded long enough to be effective.

All this in the face of government statistics indicating a 73 percent increase in the number of US teens taking up smoking as a daily habit between 1988 and 1996.

We'd urge the attorneys general, whose lawsuits give them substantial leverage over the tobacco companies, not to give ground on concrete steps to reduce youth smoking. Given doubts about Congress's readiness to revisit the issue, their efforts may be the best opportunity for years to rein in tobacco marketing to youths.

Americans would like to see the marketing of that other harmful product, alcoholic beverages, reined in as well. That's the conclusion of a national survey done for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Heavy majorities favor higher taxes on alcohol consumption, a ban on billboard ads for liquor, and zero tolerance for underage drinking.

The country's distance from that last goal is sadly attested by the continued prevalence of binge drinking on college campuses and the high toll from youthful drinking and driving. Concerning the roads, a Maryland-based nonprofit group calling itself Aluminum Anonymous Inc. counts empty beer cans and bottles along the nation's roadways. Its findings range from an average of 1,200 empty containers per mile per year in Massachusetts to 900 in Colorado, with an estimated national average around 1,000. Hardly conclusive evidence, but highly suggestive of the amount of drinking going on in vehicles - all too much of it by the young.

Bills to curb alcohol ads or put health warnings on them occasionally surface in Congress, but have gone nowhere. If Big Tobacco remains a lobbying and campaign-fund power, Big Alcohol is even more formidable.

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Average Americans seem to have more common sense in these matters than many of their elected representatives. It's time to start heeding voters' emphatic voices.

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