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DO MORE TO DISCOURAGE SMOKING

Despite decades of anti-smoking education, a steady decline in the percentage of the U.S. population that smokes, and a rising cost in the price of cigarettes, about 1 million youngsters still take up smoking each year.

Some 70 percent of smokers start before they are 18. The average age for first trying a cigarette is 14.About one in five high school seniors smoke, a figure that essentially hasn't change in 10 years. And adolescent smokers are more likely to later develop into heavier smokers and smoke for a longer time.

Considering the serious health problems associated with cigarettes - including 400,000 smoking-related deaths a year - tougher measures are clearly in order.

After an 18-month study, the prestigious Institute of Medicine has concluded that the Food and Drug Administration ought to: strictly regulate tobacco and limit the nicotine allowed in cigarettes; slap a tax of $2 per pack on cigarettes; require merchants to have a state license to sell tobacco; prohibit cigarette vending machines; allow states to ban any tobacco advertising deemed attractive to teens.

Despite tobacco industry claims to the contrary, cigarette advertising does affect young people. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, the 3 million American youths who smoke light up most frequently with the three most heavily advertised brands.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is urging congressional enactment of the Institute of Medicine recommendations. Unfortunately, the legislation faces an uphill fight.

Just how tough a fight can be seen from the fate of a Clinton administration proposal to raise the current 24-cent federal tax on a pack of cig-a-rettes by 75 cents. It was killed in a Congress fearful of losing tobacco-industry jobs. Consequently, the adoption of a much stiffer $2 tax seems unlikely in the near future, even though the financial and health arguments for it are compelling.

In its report, the institute admits that an outright ban of tobacco wouldn't work, but the study makes sense in urging that more can and should be done to protect the nation's health by making it more difficult and more expensive to indulge, or even start, the smoking habit.

As FDA officials have already indicated in pushing for more control over tobacco products: "It's critical that we do all we can to prevent kids from getting hooked." The issue is just that simple.