May. 14 2001
Washington, DC — A study published today by the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine shows yet again that states are falling woefully short in enforcing their laws against the sale of tobacco products to minors. It also shows that the federal government is doing little to hold states to the standard set by the 1992 federal law, known as the Synar Amendment, that requires states to enact and effectively enforce a law prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors.
While compliance rates have improved in some states, they have worsened in others and remain well below the level required to reduce youth smoking in most states. Illegal sales of tobacco to minors remain unacceptably high throughout most of the country. This is continuing because states are not using available resources to enforce their laws against tobacco sales to minors, and the federal government is not using its own power under the Synar Amendment to encourage them to do so. According to the new study, the federal government has not only failed to enforce the compliance criteria, but also weakened them.
As with most areas of tobacco prevention, we know what will work to reduce illegal sales of tobacco to kids; we simply need to do it. As part of a comprehensive tobacco prevention program, every state in the country should use tobacco settlement dollars or other sources to adequately fund meaningful enforcement efforts. These efforts must include regular, unannounced inspections of tobacco retailers, significant penalties for violators and, ultimately, license suspension for repeat offenders. Research has clearly shown that merchant education programs, and industry-sponsored programs such as Philip Morris's We Card program, are simply not effective in increasing compliance or reducing youth smoking.
With the billions of dollars states are receiving from their settlements with the tobacco companies, there is absolutely no excuse for the continuing lack of enforcement by the states. States like Florida and Vermont that have strongly enforced their youth access laws have reduced illegal sales to minors to less than 10 percent. While youth access enforcement alone will not reduce tobacco use to the degree needed, it is an important element in a comprehensive program that also includes public education (counter-marketing), community and school-based programs, and help for smokers who want to quit. States like California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Florida that have adopted these proven strategies have succeeded in reducing tobacco use.
Unfortunately, illegal sales of tobacco to youth may only get worse as a result of the tobacco industry's successful court challenge of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's tobacco rule. The youth access provisions of this rule were being enforced through contracts with the states that provided funding for tens of thousands of compliance checks across the country. These enforcement efforts ended as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's March 2000 ruling overturning the FDA rule. The U.S. Congress must act to give the FDA full authority to regulate the sale of tobacco products to youth, as well as the marketing and manufacture of these deadly products.