Experts Divided over Crackdown on Teen Smoking

Article excerpt

If the new restrictions on cigarettes work as the government intends, a teen-ager trying to buy a pack would face a familiar question: "May I see some identification, please?"

Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala says: "Carding young people is common practice in this country. If someone walks into a store who looks underage and asks for a pack of Camels, the clerk will ask for a photo ID."

Food and Drug Commissioner David Kessler, who designed the proposals, said: "If you go up to Camden Yards (in Baltimore) and try to buy a beer, you have to show a photo ID. This will be no different."

If that question automatically confronts a teen at the counter of his neighborhood convenience store, and other measures designed to make cigarettes less accessible and desirable work as hoped for, the plan to reduce smoking by young people could turn out to be the landmark health measure that President Bill Clinton has proclaimed.

But that is a big if - one that may not be resolved for years. Already, smoking by minors is banned in states across the country, but enforcement is so lax that the ban is virtually meaningless.

Clinton's administration, which has projected a goal of reducing children's smoking by half within seven years, has promised to put all its available muscle behind a new law. Under the Food and Drug Administration - which has not hesitated in recent years to pursue aggressively those who violate its statutes - that could mean product seizure, civil fines and criminal prosecution.

Experts point to the success of an almost identical program against teen-age smoking begun in Sweden in 1975 that dramatically reduced smoking in that country from 55 percent to 26 percent within 15 years.

"Deglamorizing cigarettes and enforcing the laws reduces kids from picking up the habit, and, if they don't start by age 20, they never will," said Dr. David Sachs, director of the Palo Alto (Calif.) Center for Pulmonary Disease Prevention, who studied the Swedish program. "It absolutely can make a difference."

But not everyone is convinced that the approach will be effective, particularly in light of how ingrained smoking has become in modern teen culture.

"The responsibility lies not with the FDA, not with the president, not with the surgeon general - but with parents, teachers and others," said Dr. …