NO one, not even the tobacco companies, denies that underage smoking is a serious problem. President Clinton is about to indicate just how serious by announcing a decision to regulate cigarette sales to minors. Last week, the president said the federal government should do more to stop the ''terrible problem'' of smoking among the young. His announcement is expected this week, during a visit to Charlotte, N.C.
All states have laws banning cigarette sales to youths, but too few enforce them. A Food and Drug Administration ruling would do what the states should have been more diligent about doing.
Although the tobacco industry worries that the White House wants to regulate all cigarette sales, the critical issue today is underage smoking. That's where the administration should focus. Backing up that position are a number of studies showing a rise in teenage smoking. Last week, three House members released a survey they say shows ''tobacco companies are going after America's children with a vengeance.''
The survey of 5,000 convenience stores, called ''Operation Storefront,'' was conducted for California's Department of Health and Human Services. It found that convenience stores near schools were particularly festooned with exterior tobacco ads. It found an average of more than 25 tobacco ads and promotions in each store, with many of the ads positioned at 3 feet or lower.
The measures the administration is discussing would address some of the issues raised by such survey findings, including banning cigarette vending machines from places that youths frequent, limiting the types of advertising tobacco companies can use, and requiring proof of age for the sale of cigarettes.
The White House had considered a compromise proposal, under which the tobacco industry would support efforts to tackle underage smoking in exchange for no regulations. But the tobacco industry opposed so much of the proposal that talks stalled, leaving Mr. Clinton with little choice but to side with the FDA.
Taking on the powerful tobacco industry may be a political boost for the president as he looks ahead to '96. But politics aside, underage smoking is a problem that will likely become more urgent if it isn't addressed now. Regulating cigarette sales to minors is the strongest message the administration can send.
An FDA ruling would do what the states should have been more diligent about doing.