Teen Tobacco Law Said Not Enforced
A 1992 law aimed at ending sales of cigarettes and other tobacco products to minors through rigorous state-level checking has not been adequately enforced, an analysis of their performance says.
Most states and U.S. territories have neglected to investigate properly if their own laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors are followed and to prosecute when the laws are broken, said the study, released Wednesday and published in The Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association.
``Very few states have implemented effective enforcement programs, and national surveys confirm that there has been no measurable reduction in the availability of tobacco to youths,'' said the study's author, Dr. Joseph DiFranza, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
The 1992 Synar Amendment - named for its sponsor, the late Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla. - Congress required states to ban tobacco sales to anyone under age 18. It called for aggressive enforcement including random, unannounced inspections using decoy buyers at grocery stores and other retailers.
States must outline how they have carried out the Synar Amendment in their annual applications for block grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And the Department of Health and Human Services must in turn withhold some funding from states that have not complied.
But the study, which examined the applications filed in 1997, found 19 states or territories had failed to meet the Synar requirements yet were not punished by the department. The states were Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Tennessee, Virginia, Wyoming. The territories were Guam, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Northern Marianas, Palau and Puerto Rico.
Fifteen states and territories did not provide evidence that inspections of cigarette vendors were tied to prosecutions, and 18 states showed no evidence that merchants had been successfully prosecuted for selling tobacco to minors, the study said.
Most of the 41 states that prosecuted such cases did not enforce the laws in a way that ``would even remotely be expected to reduce the availability of tobacco to minors,'' it said.
The availability of tobacco to minors and the underage use of tobacco is considered reduced when the proportion of lawbreaking merchants is cut to 10 percent, the study said, but federal officials are using a threshold of 20 percent for its judgments.
``It only takes one store to sell to minors since youths learn quickly which stores will sell to them,'' DiFranza said in a statement.
The report also criticized state law loopholes that make it harder to prosecute the laws, and said the Synar Amendment itself was flawed because it threatens the funding of mental health agencies, which do not enforce tobacco access laws.
This year, the government notified Delaware, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia that because they haven't met the Synar criteria, the law requires 40 percent cuts in block grants for substance abuse and treatment programs. Though they may appeal, the states could lose $37 million in drug treatment dollars.
But the Clinton administration, and some members of Congress, say these penalties should be reconsidered.
The report was funded by the Substance Abuse Policy Research Program, which studies policies on tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs.