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CIGARETTE CURB MAY GO UP IN SMOKE

In shopping malls, city parks and coffee houses around the country, teenagers are scoffing at President Clinton's plans to keep them from smoking.

This sounds like the rebellious swagger of youth. But their skepticism may be justified.Hoping to reduce underage smoking by 50 percent within seven years, Clinton is relying on a bold new approach that no one has tried in its entirety. It may never take effect, however, if the more conservative Congress passes a less sweeping version.

"This really is an ambitious new initiative that the president has embarked upon . . . and a novel one," said Jim O'Hara, a spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration.

O'Hara said the plan represents the consensus of the top scholars who have looked at the problem of underage smoking. The plan includes a combination of advertising restrictions to take the glamour out of smoking, new rules that make cigarettes harder for kids to obtain, and an anti-smoking educational campaign aimed at winning over the hearts and minds of teen-agers.

Different parts of this strategy have been tried at the state or local level, and in foreign countries - with mixed success.

In California, for instance, since 1990 a portion of the state's cigarette tax has been used for an anti-smoking media campaign and tobacco education classes in the schools. This is similar to the $150 million-a-year program that Clinton wants to set up to persuade kids not to smoke.

During the same period, youth smoking rates in the state have remained constant, said Colleen Stevens, a spokeswoman for the California Health Department's tobacco control program. She said that at least California has been able to buck the national trend, where smoking rates among underage teens has been on the rise in recent years.

The most controversial part of Clinton's plan may turn out to be the stiff advertising restrictions, which were immediately challenged in court by a coalition of advertising groups that reached far beyond the tobacco industry. Only black-and-white ads with words and no pictures would be allowed on billboards or in magazines with large youth readership.

Although no country has tried the exact combination of ad limits that Clinton favors, some nations have resorted to an outright ban on cigarette advertising.

A 1986 study found that despite total advertising bans in Norway, Iceland and Finland, cigarette consumption in those countries had not significantly decreased.

"It simply showed that ad bans don't work," said Penny Farthing, an attorney for the Freedom to Advertise Coalition, which is suing to block Clinton's plan.