Some shoppers find it flattering, others irritating, but all should hail this new federal regulation. It requires stores to ask for a photo ID from any tobacco customer who looks younger than 27, with the intent of keeping cigarettes out of the hands of those under 18. Merchants who don't comply face fines up to $250.
The regulation, which went into effect Feb. 28, is part of a comprehensive effort to restrict access and limit the appeal of tobacco to children, and it's an important step. Merchants need to be deterred from profiting by selling cigarettes to minors. And, though the tobacco industry, store clerks, and young people might argue otherwise, it's not a hardship to produce identification at a checkout counter.
Enforcement of the new regulation is key. Every state in the country already has a law banning the sale of tobacco products to people under 18, but most of these laws are ineffective. That's why the federal Food and Drug Administration will fund enforcement efforts, this month handing out $4 million to 10 states for that purpose, including the use of under-18, undercover "sting" operators.
Stopping young people at a checkout counter won't eliminate teenage smoking, yet without such regulations the tobacco industry's task of recruiting new smokers is made that much easier. An estimated 4.5 million young people already smoke. Among eighth-graders, smoking rates have risen 50 percent in the last six years. And, according to one study, minors succeed in buying cigarettes over the counter nearly 70 percent of the time. The federal government is right to try to put a stop to that.
It can take comfort from those states that have been serious about enforcement. In Massachusetts, local communities with active enforcement programs have seen their compliance rates go from 30 percent to 76 percent. The threat of fines or loss of license is making merchants do what they should have been doing anyway.
While parents should be the first line of defense against juvenile smoking, as President Clinton has said, he's right to make stores the second. And after that? Vending machines and cigarette advertising. Stay tuned.