Pointing to statistics showing a modest decline in teenage smoking, advocates of Utah's pioneering statewide ban on cigarette vending machines are claiming a victory in their war on tobacco.
But on downtown Salt Lake City's streets, groups of youths defiantly puff away - and laugh at anti-smokers' claims to have put a dent in their cigarette supply."This law is bull----, man. It don't do a thing," said Dean, who at 17 is two years under Utah's legal smoking and drinking age. "I buy them at the store. They never ask (how old you are). If you're going to smoke, you're going to smoke."
Penni, 16, gets cigarettes from friends or her parents.
"If you can't get them that way, you just rip them off or walk in and buy them. Nobody cares," she said, making her point with a long drag. She doesn't cough.
For 11-year-old Racheska, it's only slightly more difficult. Sometimes, she says, her mom buys them for her. Other times, she buys them in convenience stores, trying several if not at first successful.
"Sometimes I get somebody else to buy them for me," she said.
The image of Racheska is a haunting one for Chris Chalkley, a chief advocate of the state's 15-month-old prohibition on cigarette vending machines in public places.
"Everyone has their source, I know. It's sad. That's our challenge now, tighter controls . . . the vending machines were the first step," said Chalkley, manager of the Utah Department of Health's tobacco prevention and control program.
She insists that first step, coupled with anti-smoking education, has had some effect - enough to spark similar efforts in New York and California.
Chalkley cites student surveys showing that between 1987 and 1989 - the first year the ban took effect - smoking in the 12-to-17 age group declined from 13.1 percent to 10.5 percent.
A 1988 National Institutes of Health study estimated that on average, 11.8 percent of America's adolescents smoke.
"There has been a reduction in the (youth smoking) prevalence rate, but how much removing of the vending machines was responsible is hard to say," Chalkley said.
Nonetheless, it's one less place for youths to pick up the nicotine habit.
"Is it working? Any change takes time," Chalkley said. "Hopefully it will (succeed) with increased attention and stricter legislation."
She vows that when legislators meet in January, their agenda will include further measures to shut off the tobacco pipeline to Utah's youth - including requiring stores selling cigarettes to post signs reading, "We I.D. for tobacco sales."
Other proposals may include requiring tobacco products to be placed behind sales counters, and providing stiffer penalties for violations, including sales license revocation.
Meantime, state health officials are conducting retailer education seminars to make sure store clerks are aware of restrictions on tobacco sales to minors, Chalkley said.
Currently, selling tobacco to a minor is a misdemeanor carrying a maximum $500 fine and 90-day jail term on the first offense; $1,000 fine and six months behind bars on the second; and a $2,500 fine and a year in jail for a third offense.
Still, youths who want to smoke don't have too hard a time getting cigarettes, tobacco foes acknowledge.
"Really, we need to put the screws on the convenience store operators or anyone else who sells cigarettes to people under 19. We want to go after them," said State Rep. Hugh Rush, a West Valley Republican who sponsored the vending machine law in 1989.
Rush, recently elected president of the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Utah, takes pride in the law - the first in the nation to ban the machines statewide.
Little opposition is expected to tighter controls on youth access to tobacco in Utah, where seven out of 10 people are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught to abstain from tobacco, along with alcohol, coffee and tea.
The church has not taken a formal stand on the issue.
Rush and his coalition can expect willing support from lawmakers, said Rep. Joe Moody, chairman of the House Health Committee.
"I was very much in favor of the ban," the Delta Republican said, adding that more restrictions are in line.
"It's time we cinch things up a little bit more," Moody said. "I feel very strongly; The evidence is in on its (tobacco's) health effects."