WASHINGTON — LOOK for a serious struggle next year in Congress over smoking by American youth under 18. Antismoking forces will try to reduce through legislation the use of tobacco products by minors, the effectiveness of direct and indirect advertisements on youth, and the promotion of tobacco products through sponsorship of sporting events. Obtaining passage of such a proposal will be a difficult uphill climb despite the successes antismoking advocates have had in recent years - especially in establishing nonsmoking areas in restaurants, public facilities, and work places.
The congressional stirrings follow efforts of antitobacco activists in several states and municipalities to prevent underage youth from having access to tobacco products. ``More and more states are looking at'' ways to enforce existing state laws that forbid sale of tobacco products to minors, says Fran Du Melle, of the anti-tobacco Coalition on Smoking or Health. ``Forty-five states restrict sales to minors - however, very few have any sort of enforcement mechanism,'' she adds.
Many youths report little difficulty purchasing tobacco products in violation of state laws. Frequently other minors purchase them in convenience stores or gasoline stations. Licensing vending machines `a growing trend'
Both states and municipalities are zeroing in on vending machines, which cannot question the age of purchasers. Twelve states now license where cigarette vending machines can be installed, says Ms. Du Melle, who calls licensing ``a growing trend.''
Two opening shots have been fired in the early skirmishing this year in Washington over the issue.
Last September the House subcommittee on Health and Environment approved a watered-down proposal that among other provisions would have forbidden most cigarette sales in vending machines, where youth often purchase tobacco products, and ended public giveaways of tobacco products. Antismoking forces concede that they lacked sufficient votes to advance the proposal further. Tobacco Institute to discourage youth smoking
This week the Tobacco Institute announced what it described as major new initiatives to discourage youth smoking. ``A drop in youth smoking is what we're after,'' says Brennan Dawson of the Tobacco Institute.
The Tobacco Institute says its proposal includes a program to help stores that sell tobacco products ``observe and enforce state laws'' that prohibit sale to minors, ``sharp new limitations'' on distribution of sample cigarettes, and educational materials to help parents persuade their children not to smoke. The proposal ran into heavy criticism from antismoking advocates, including Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan.
Antismoking advocates charge that the voluntary Tobacco Institute program intentionally would be ineffective in reducing smoking among youth. They insist that it actually is a hypocritical effort, grounded in public relations, to persuade Congress and the states that no new laws are needed to curtail youth smoking.
Du Melle charges that tobacco firms have to introduce smoking to underage youth in order to get them to smoke as adults: To reduce youth smoking ``is suicide for the tobacco industry.''
In the next Congress, which begins Jan. 3, both Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts will introduce proposals designed to reduce tobacco use by minors through curtailed vending-machine placement, sharply restricted tobacco advertising, and prohibition of the now-current use of tobacco brand names in the sponsoring of sports events.