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Clinton's Policy on Cigarettes Lacks Teeth

Column by David Kelman

By now, most people are probably aware that President Clinton declared nicotine an addictive substance last week. Accompanying this announcement was a list of new regulations on tobacco products. The goal of these regulations is to reduce or eliminate teenage smoking. I applaud this announcement as a step in the right direction, but I am also skeptical as to how effective the president's new regulations may be.

One of the new rules involves the elimination of cigarette vending machines from any place that minors may be, like restaurants or convenience stores. This regulation is a good start, but the fact of the matter is that many minors do not need to resort to sneaking packs of cigarettes out of vending machines when no one is looking. Unfortunately, buying cigarettes over the counter is all too easy for minors today. When I was in high school, people in my class who smoked needed only to go to several of the many gas stations in the area to buy cigarettes. None of the people at these gas stations cared who they sold their packs to.

In fact, just last week I was getting some things at an area food store (which shall remain unnamed) when two girls ahead of me, who I would judge to be about 14 or 15, each bought a pack of cigarettes. As they left, another cashier asked the one ringing up my items if she had asked the girls for identification. She nonchalantly replied that she had not and that she did not care. Frankly, I was surprised the second cashier had even thought about it (which is why I remember this story).

Surely, those setting Clinton's tobacco policy must know to an extent that the situation is usually as I have described it. Thus, I think that heavy strengthening of the enforcement of minimum-age statutes is vital to reducing teenage smoking. I reiterate that regulations on cigarette vending machines alone may do some good but not nearly enough.

Another part of the new tobacco regulations states that any kind of tobacco advertising will be eliminated within a 1000-foot radius around schools. This sounds to me to be a lot like the "drug-free school zones" that were set up near the beginning of this decade. The gist of these drug-free zones was that fines and other penalties were stiffer inside the 1000-foot radius for infractions dealing with illegal drugs.

Basically, the government said "don't make or deal drugs anywhere, but now we really, really mean it inside our nifty sounding drug-free zone." In my view, all this zone did was lower the overall credibility of the enforcement of illegal drug laws in our communities. Why shouldn't selling crack behind the local McDonald's - where kids will surely be - be as bad as drug dealing three football-field lengths from a school? Along the same lines today, why should a billboard for cigarettes be any less of a terrible thing near the local mall - where kids will surely be - than near a school? How much did teen drug use rise in the period of 1992 to 1995, at the same time these drug-free zones have been in effect? A resounding 105 percent. Again, this new regulation is a start, but let us not kid ourselves into thinking that any kind of partial zone-based stance is enough.

Finally, I can not deal with this issue without commenting on it on a more politicized level. The tobacco regulation announcement appeared as part of Clinton's recent flurry of policy announcements before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. This particular announcement is especially convenient; it came on the heels of a report on the rise in teenage drug use during the Clinton administration.

I cannot resist questioning whether Clinton's announcement is really intended to do anything or if it is meant just to sound good and diffuse the potentially ruinous drug use report. I would like to hope that the answer is the former. The list of causes that Clinton has championed at one time and then later allegedly abandoned is not easy to ignore. Supporters of gay rights and welfare come to mind as groups where some have recently cried betrayal.

In general, I support Clinton's new policies regarding tobacco, but I urge him (and Bob Dole - perhaps our next president), to take even more action to stop the plague of nicotine among our teenagers. I grant that the 1,000-foot no-billboard zone is more easily enforceable than the drug-free zone is, but that credibility is lost through a partial, area-based ban on advertisements. I assert that vending machine regulations do not get to the root of the problem regarding the purchase of tobacco by minors. I have seen friends of mine from high school destroy much of their lives, beginning with tobacco use. America owes it to the youth of today and those of the 21st century not to stop halfway regarding tobacco control.