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Smoking Is Bad; Now, Let’s Act

Thu., Sept. 26, 1996

It’s disappointing, though not surprising, that the Board of County Commissioners backed down on Tuesday from making it illegal for minors to smoke in Spokane County.

Chalk it up as one more confused, indecisive message to youngsters about smoking, a health risk about which there is nearly universal agreement: Kids shouldn’t smoke.

Even tobacco companies, whose advertising campaigns are accused of using cartoon characters and other methods to target children, declare publicly that tobacco products are not good for youngsters. Whether or not they mean it, they obviously recognize where social pressure lies.

But universal agreement and social pressure don’t stiffen the backbones of public policy-makers who have authority to control the availability and use of tobacco. Clearly, if cigarettes, chewing tobacco and other nicotine products were being offered on the U.S. market for the first time today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would reject them.

But when President Clinton recently declared that nicotine is an addictive drug and therefore under FDA regulatory authority, the agency set its sights not on the problem behavior of youngsters and their direct suppliers but on the marketing strategies of cigarette manufacturers who engage in a legal business.

In fact, it is illegal in Washington state for anyone younger than 18 to buy cigarettes, but it’s not illegal for minors to smoke them.

Every year or two, authorities conduct sting operations and cite a few retailers for selling to underage smokers, but the enforcement efforts haven’t been sustained enough to curb teenage smoking. Actually, while smoking has been on the decline among adults, it has started to rise again among teenagers.

Meanwhile, high schools, where youngsters learn respect for a democratic society’s lawmaking process, timidly overlook the clusters of student smokers who gather on school grounds where smoking is illegal - by anyone, regardless of age.

So, on Tuesday, the proposal to outlaw underage smoking in Spokane County was dropped.

It was a pragmatic decision. State law would have required any such local ordinance to be punishable as a misdemeanor, and that would have created enforcement burdens including piles of paperwork and putting youngsters through the juvenile justice system.

That’s the problem. Society is telling kids they shouldn’t smoke, but society isn’t willing to take firm action.

If we truly want teenagers to appreciate the seriousness of the message, we have to demonstrate the conviction and earnestness necessary to back it up.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Doug Floyd/For the editorial board

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