NEW YORK — MELISSA ANTONOW is 12 years old and a nonsmoker. Yet she is at the Water View restaurant in Howard Beach, Queens, demonstrating how easy it is for a child to purchase a pack of cigarettes from a vending machine. Wearing sneakers, a T-shirt, and a white bow in her blonde hair, she slips into the Water View. Within plain sight of two cashiers and the maitre d', she puts her quarters into the machine and moments later walks out with a pack of cigarettes. This scene is repeated daily all over the country - minors between the ages of 9 and 18 buying cigarettes from vending machines.
Because it is easy for children to buy cigarettes this way, vending machines have suddenly become targets of health groups. ``It is a really high priority to significantly restrict the sales and access to children so they don't pick up the habit,'' says Angela Mickel, director of Tobacco-Free America, a legislative clearinghouse in Washington.
Last week, the Indiana legislature voted to restrict tobacco vending machines to areas not accessible to minors, or to stores that use electronic devices to control the use of the machines.
In Minnesota early last month, the state passed a law restricting tobacco vending machines to factories, liquor stores, and bars. In other places, the machines must use either tokens or an electronic device that turns on the machine and can be operated only by a clerk. In the state, nine communities have banned all tobacco vending machines and 17 other cities restrict their placement.
Still other cities and states are now actively considering proposals. Health groups are holding a press conference today in New York to boost a measure that restricts tobacco vending machines where minors have ``easy access.'' The bill is expected to be introduced on May 3 in the City Council where Melissa and four other children will be among witnesses at a hearing.
According to the Tobacco-Free America project, 17 states have some laws restricting tobacco sales from vending machines. Only eight states, however, have restrictions on where they can be placed.
In Congress, Rep. Thomas Luken (D) of Ohio has introduced legislation that would make it a violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act to sell cigarettes in vending machines that are in public areas where children have access. The bill is in a subcommittee and is not scheduled for a vote.
The inspector general of the US Department of Health and Human Services is in the early stages of a study of youth access to cigarettes; the study should be completed by June.
Targeting vending machines may not be enough to stop children from smoking. The vending machine industry contends that children have no trouble buying cigarettes from gas stations or convenience stores. In a survey conducted last July for the industry, two-thirds of the frequent purchasers said they bought their cigarettes over the counter while only 9 percent used a vending machine.
``We say kids don't buy from vending machines,'' says Richard Funk, chief counsel and director of government affairs for the National Automatic Merchandising Association in Chicago. According to NAMA, only 3.5 percent of cigarettes are sold in the vending machines and 80 percent of those are in areas minors do not have access, such as bars or clubs.
If given the option, children will definitely buy over the counter where cigarettes are cheaper, says Bruce Talbot, a police officer with the Woodridge, Ill., police department. A survery of Woodbridge teens found 16 percent of the 650 students surveyed smoked. The average age was 12.
Most of the Woodridge teens bought their cigarettes over the counter. To prevent these sales, Woodridge now requires licenses. If a merchant is caught selling to a minor, he risks losing his license. After a series of ``sting'' operations, three merchants lost licenses.
Woodridge also went after vending machines. The town requires licensing for vending machines and a locking device, called a ``Utah remote.'' This is a remote device which permits a clerk to electronically control the sale of cigarettes.
``I think we are the first community in the country which can document 100 percent compliance with age restrictions,'' says officer Talbot, who also runs the town's drug prevention program. Unfortunately, as Talbot is quick to admit, most of the teens who want to smoke now cross the town line to buy cigarettes.
In surveys, children report it is easy to obtain cigarettes. Jean Forster, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, did a survey of children's perception of tobacco availability and then followed up to find out how true those perceptions were. ``The kids report it is easy, and it is easy,'' she says.
Visiting convenience stores, bars, liquor stores, VFW lodges, grocers, and vending machine locations, Ms. Forster found the children had a 60 percent success rate in obtaining cigarettes. At vending machines, the children had a much better success rate - 78 percent.
In New York City, it appears even easier to get cigarettes. Joe Cherner, who runs Smokefree Educational Services Inc., went with children to locations in each borough to see if they would have problems buying cigarettes from vending machines. At the 35 locations visited, they were never stopped.
Melissa's purchase at the Water View was part of Mr. Cherner's experiment. Melissa always entered the restaurants alone. Cherner, who kept careful records of each purchase, ensured it would not appear she was buying them for a parent.
In the afternoon, Cherner repeated the experiment in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn with 15-year-old David Skyler. Wearing a baseball cap and sneakers, David bought cigarettes at six locations. At one restaurant some men told him he was too young to buy cigarettes, but no one stopped him.
It was too easy for 12-year-old Theresa Kyte to get cigarettes and become addicted, says her attorney Edward Greer of Cambridge, Mass. Ms. Kyte, now 20, is suing Philip Morris Inc. and the local retailers where she bought the cigarettes.
``We are going after Marlboro, the brand of choice of teenie boppers,'' says Mr. Greer, estimating that Philip Morris makes $250 million a year on the sale of cigarettes to minors.
Hadrian Katz, a partner at Arnold & Porter, a Washington law firm, says Philip Morris has no responsibility for the sale of cigarettes to a minor. ``We sell to wholesalers who in turn sell to retailers. The retailers say they take great precautions,'' says Mr. Katz.