Thanks to an aggressive effort by Cambridge's tobacco campaign program, it is now harder for young people to puff away their health. A recent sting operation by the program revealed that the supply of cigarettes available to minors from local vendors is becoming increasingly scarce. Of the Harvard Square merchants investigated in December, only 15 percent sold cigarettes to teenagers, down from 70 percent last February.
This decrease suggests that merchants are heeding the crackdown on underage smoking passed by the City Council last spring. While the city's method of monitoring enforcement--sending local teenagers undercover to purchase cigarettes--borders on entrapment, such measures are needed to combat the growing problem of teenage tobacco abuse. Recent studies have estimated that more than three million minors abuse tobacco, leading the Clinton administration to call such widespread use a "pediatric disease." In a year when smoking among eighth graders is up 30 percent and more kindergarteners can identify Joe Camel than Ronald McDonald, the city's actions are not only justifiable, but desperately needed.
Businesses that allegedly sold cigarettes to the undercover teens, such as the Hong Kong restaurant, will face stiff fines and risk having their tobacco licenses revoked. A 25-cent tobacco tax approved in a 1992 statewide referendum both funded the sting operation and made smoking more expensive for teens.
By giving merchants and potential teen smokers a financial disincentive to sell and buy tobacco, the city saves money in the long run. The meager profits made by vendors on tobacco sales are outweighed by the societal costs of teenage smoking. Each year 400,000 people die from tobacco-related illnesses. A study published last fall found that each pack of cigarettes sold costs society 55 cents for additional health care and 14 cents for extra life insurance for smokers. Most smokers begin their habits as teenagers; by eradicating the underage cigarette problem now, the city avoids the unnecessary costs of caring for ill smokers.
As a result of the city's educational efforts, the only teens trying to purchase cigarettes in the future may be those sent undercover by the tobacco campaign program. To combat tobacco industry advertising campaigns which target young audiences, the city has begun anti-smoking educational programs in local youth centers and schools. Researchers have found that teens who have friends that smoke are twice as likely to light up as those that don't. We congratulate the City on its efforts to crack down on smoking and hope it will continue the push to alleviate the problems of selling cigarettes to minors.