Utah legislators are considering tougher laws to discourage smoking by young people - including outlawing of smoking at schools and doing more to prevent the sale of cigarettes to adolescents.
This is a worthy cause. Anything that can be done to reduce the availability of tobacco to underage youth ought to be vigorously pursued.State law already prohibits smoking and the purchase of tobacco products by anyone under age 19, although the misdemeanor penalties against use are rarely enforced. But young people often flout the law by purchasing cigarettes from stores or vending machines.
While arresting youthful smokers for lighting up might not be the most effective use of limited law enforcement resources, considerably more needs to be done to reduce the accessibility of tobacco, especially to youths.
Tougher penalties could be levied against adults who knowingly sell to young people under age 19. And cigarette vending machines, over which there is little control of purchase for buyers of any age, need to be limited to places where youngsters cannot get at them.
It makes no sense to pass laws banning smoking under a certain age, yet at the same time, make it easy for those same underage youth to acquire cigarettes.
Given the vigorous leadership of U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in opposing the addiction of young people to cigarette smoking with all its devastating consequences, this matter is clearly a public health issue of major proportions. Communities, states, and private businesses all across the country are taking action to restrict or prohibit smoking and to educate youngsters against the habit.
Selling a product that contains at least 50 known poisons to youngsters, or allowing them easy access to it, simply is not responsible. As health statistics on the dangers of smoking continue to pile up, more and more people recognize the need to diminish the threat.
The cost of smoking is high for society at large. More than 725 Utahns die each year of smoking-related diseases, and the habit costs Utahns alone some $155 million a year in medical bills, lost productivity and lost income.
Although they deny it, tobacco companies clearly aim much of their advertising at the youthful market, projecting images of glamour, vigor and sophistication - images that have particularly powerful appeal for often-insecure adolescents.
Studies show that most smokers start at an early age. And the earlier the start, the more likely it will become an entrenched habit.
Making tobacco less accessible to young people may prevent some from ever starting smoking - and save lives in the long run. That's a compelling reason to act.