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Despite laws, kids buying smokes

Despite state and federal laws prohibiting the sale of cigarettes to minors, they are able to buy them four out of 10 times, according to a report released Friday by Vice President Al Gore.

A national survey that monitored teenagers trying to buy cigarettes found that clerks violated state laws and federal regulations 40 percent of the time, selling to children under 18.Nationwide, noncompliance rates ranged from Florida's 7.2 percent to 72.7 percent in Louisiana. Seven states, including Texas, did not participate in the survey.

The survey of 60,000 retail stores was conducted as part of a law sponsored by the late Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., that requires states to conduct random inspections of places where cigarettes are sold and sets a target rate of less than 20 percent noncompliance.

States that don't meet the 20 percent level by 2003 could lose part of their federal block grant for substance abuse and treatment.

At a news conference unveiling the study and announcing an advertising campaign aimed at encouraging clerks to check the identification of anyone under 27, Jessica Goh, 16, of Jacksonville, Fla., told Gore about her experiences as one of the teenagers sent into stores to check their compliance.

"I want to tell you that this is an amazing job. I feel like I'm making a big contribution to something that's really important," Goh said.

"I don't like the idea that many tobacco companies' new smokers are children and adolescents. Kids usually don't know enough about the dangers of nicotine addiction when they are young," she said.

"If they start when they are young, it's really hard to stop. I see it at school all the time - kids my age and younger . . . trying to smoke one last cigarette to get them through the day, or sneaking off from classes at lunch to have another cigarette to get them through classes. They think they can stop when they want to, but they can't. I see my friends try, and they are addicted," Goh said.

Violations by store clerks carry federal penalties ranging from $250 for the second violation to $10,000 for five violations, said Mitch Zeller, associate commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

The $7.5 million advertising campaign unveiled by Gore and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala will begin Saturday in Arkansas and will be expanded to 10 other states this spring. It will be further expanded to the rest of the country by the end of the year.

Ads will run in newspapers, on billboards and on the radio.

In unveiling the campaign, Gore again called on Congress to pass comprehensive legislation that would increase the price of cigarettes by about $1.50 a pack, stiffen federal regulation of tobacco products and impose severe restrictions on the way cigarettes are advertised.