The Senate recently bypassed a historic opportunity to protect kids from the dangers of tobacco. Instead of enacting reform, the Senate killed tough, comprehensive legislation sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Unfortunately, Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch continue to let us down in our fight to protect kids from tobacco by recently voting against an amendment to restore the McCain Bill. The choice is clear: Big Tobacco or America's kids. Faced with steep increases in teen smoking, our senators chose to do nothing.

Smoking among high school seniors is at a 19-year high, and each day 3,000 kids become regular smokers. One-third of these will die prematurely from a tobacco-related illness. Bennett and Hatch's recent vote demonstrated their lack of commitment to kids and to America's public health.In the end, the Senate failed to ensure our kids a chance to grow up tobacco-free. Instead, they conceded to Big Tobacco's campaign contributions and scare tactics. The House must not be allowed to make a similar mistake. Recently, they unveiled a weak framework for House tobacco control legislation. We must let them know that passage of such phony tobacco legislation could be worse than none at all.

The American Heart Association and citizen activists across the country came together to support the McCain bill's many important provisions designed to protect kids. The bill would have protected children by increasing the per-pack price of cigarettes; restricting youth access to tobacco; guaranteeing FDA authority to regulate tobacco; providing for smoking cessation programs; and preventing tobacco companies from targeting youth with marketing and advertising.

Big Tobacco put up a multimillion dollar smoke screen of lies and exaggerations about big taxes and big government in a desperate attempt to drown out broad public support for the McCain bill. Many Senators lost sight of what tobacco control legislation is really about - protecting kids. Big Tobacco also tried to frame tobacco reform as something the American public doesn't care about. They couldn't be more wrong. The public health community is joined by two-thirds of Americans who support tough, comprehensive legislation that protects kids from tobacco.

The tobacco industry neglected to highlight any of the problems their products cause in their $40 million advertising blitz. The AHA has spent over 50 years fighting heart disease and stroke - afflictions that are often caused by tobacco. Tobacco use is responsible for over 400,000 deaths each year in this country, including nearly 200,000 from cardiovascular diseases and stroke. Smokers have an 88 percent increased risk of a stroke.

The American Heart Association's 4.2 million volunteers believe the numbers speak for themselves. We will continue to fight for tough, comprehensive tobacco control legislation. We hope that Bennett and Hatch will stand with America's kids and against Big Tobacco if presented with another opportunity to support a tough, comprehensive tobacco control bill.

Our efforts must now focus on the House as they gear up to consider tobacco control legislation. An opportunity for the House to pass tough, comprehensive tobacco control legislation already exists. This bill, the "Bipartisan No Tobacco for Kids Act of 1998," sponsored by Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, and Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., would accomplish key public health goals supported by the AHA. The Hansen-Meehan bill has the potential to save millions of lives and significantly drive down youth smoking rates.

In contrast, the House leadership failed to address our concerns in their recent announcement of a framework for their tobacco reform legislation. Their framework falls far short of what is needed to reduce teen smoking and protect millions of kids from the ravages of tobacco products. We can't let members of the House be fooled into thinking new legislation stemming from these pronouncements would offer any real reform on tobacco. We must urge our Representatives to protect kids and drop this counterfeit legislation. It's time to get to work on real tobacco legislation.

Like tobacco control opponents in the Senate, House supporters of this ill-conceived framework falsely assert that they reflect the will of the people. This new approach would significantly weaken the FDA's role in tobacco oversight at a time when 72 percent of the American public supports FDA regulation of tobacco. Their framework would penalize kids for possession of tobacco products while giving tobacco companies free reign to continue their unethical marketing to kids.

Tobacco addiction is clearly a big problem in this country. We must call on Congress to hand the American people a big solution, not a political fig leaf. The newly announced framework for tobacco legislation in the House is an election-year bait and switch that would allow Representatives to pretend they did something about tobacco. But the American Heart Association knows better, and so do the American people.

Members of Congress must be held accountable by the public for their inaction on tobacco reform. Urge your House members to hold their ground. They have a choice to make: kids or tobacco. True representatives of the people shouldn't let Big Tobacco scare them. No past or potential campaign contributions, no delays and no multimillion dollar ad campaigns should affect their decision. We must demand that our elected officials keep the faces and futures of our nation's most precious resource - our children - before them.