The Huff Over Teen Puffs

THE Food and Drug Administration has a resolution for the new year: to halve the number of teenage smokers by putting restrictions on the way tobacco products are sold and advertised. Cigarette makers have an entirely different resolution: to keep the FDA from imposing these new and costly regulations.

Proponents for both sides had until midnight Jan. 2 to express in writing their opinions on the FDA's proposal, and more than half a million did just that. The FDA has an obligation to consider and respond to various arguments as it devises a final rule.

But it shouldn't, in any event, back away from its original intent to crack down on underage smoking. As the head of the national PTA wrote in a letter to the FDA, voluntary measures haven't worked, and something more must be done to protect teens from the sophisticated advertising that has contributed to an increase in smoking.

The FDA's proposal is reasonable and likely to prove effective. The plan includes restrictions on marketing, such as advertising near schools; a ban on vending-machine cigarette sales; and a requirement that cigarette companies pay $150 million a year toward educating youths about the dangers of smoking.

The tobacco industry's main concern is financial. It contends that the new rule will require about $1 billion up front, to do everything from shutting down vending machines to checking on illegal sales to minors. It claims an additional $1 billion will be lost, mostly by the advertising industry, which would face restrictions on billboards and on ads in magazines read by teenagers.

But making it harder for youths to buy cigarettes and keeping advertisers from targeting the teenage market is precisely the point. Some 3,000 US teenagers start smoking every day. The vending machines, billboards, and magazine ads are at least partially responsible. The tobacco industry's New Year's resolution is to preserve the status quo. The FDA's is to implement a much-needed change.

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