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Teen Smoking Rules Ordered : Restrictions: O.C. youths say a federal crackdown on minors' nicotine use won't stop them from lighting up.

August 11, 1995|DIANE SEO and SARAH KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

HUNTINGTON BEACH — The weather was warm. The beach was packed with hip teen-agers showing off their summer tans. And bikini-clad Jennifer Ackerman felt the mood was just right for a smoke.

While staring at the lively crowd through her dark shades, the 16-year-old Huntington Beach High junior began to take slow drags on a Marlboro Light, passing it to friends who also seemed to revel in the glamour they believe smoking evokes.

Will President Clinton's declared crackdown on nicotine use among minors stop Ackerman from lighting up?

"No way. It won't make anybody stop smoking," Ackerman said Thursday between puffs, surveying hordes of young people with cigarettes dangling from their lips. "It's a social thing. Everybody does it."

The sentiment was similar among many other teen-age smokers in Orange County, who say Clinton's proposed regulations on the sales, promotion and distribution of cigarettes will do little to curb their habit.

Cigarettes, they say, are wildly popular among today's image-conscious teen-agers, and minors will find a way to obtain them, even if that means breaking the law.

"People can steal cigarettes from their parents or get it from their friends," said Savitich Enriquez, 18, a smoker and recent graduate of Westminster High School. "Even if you go to a liquor store, it's not a problem because you just go in there and say, 'Hey, I forgot my I.D.,' and they say, 'OK, here are your cigarettes.' "

Clinton said he proposed stricter regulation of the tobacco industry because nationally more teen-agers are smoking. His plans include banning cigarette vending machines, requiring the tobacco industry to fund a $150-million education campaign to stop kids from smoking and placing tighter controls on tobacco advertising.

Orange County school officials and anti-smoking advocates praised the President for his efforts, but said it won't in itself stop teens from lighting up.

Although cigarette use among Orange County teen-agers is lower than state and national rates, 18% of the county's 11th-grade boys and 16% of girls that age smoke regularly, according to a 1993 survey by the county's Department of Education.

"I like what the President is doing, but it's not enough," said Vicki Walker, coordinator of health services for the department, which helps school districts implement anti-tobacco programs. "If you really want to make an impact, you would have to cut out all cigarette billboards, enforce [laws against] cigarette sales to minors, and put large statements on cigarette packages basically saying, 'This will lead to death.' "

Orange County's Health Care Agency helps coordinate tobacco prevention programs for school-aged youths and has assisted in sting operations to bust merchants who sell tobacco to minors.

As part of the Team Dynamite program, run by a consortium of youth groups, county youths volunteer to buy tobacco products from local merchants without showing identification. If the merchant allows the purchase, the youths will return at a later time with information about a state law prohibiting tobacco sales to minors.

"No one wants to go after the merchants, but we want to let them know what the rules are," said Marilyn Cowan, coordinator of the Orange County Tobacco Use Prevention Program. "A lot of times, they don't realize the law. Once the kids talk to them, they comply."

Eliminating vending machines does chip away at the problem, but slick advertising campaigns by tobacco companies motivate youths to obtain cigarettes.

"We think it's courageous of Clinton to take on the tobacco industry," Cowan said. "Most of us are keeping our finger's crossed. But the industry is powerful and has managed to get out of every regulation so far."

Every school district in the county already has banned smoking on campus, and most have initiated tobacco prevention programs using state funds.

For instance, the Orange Unified School District offers an eight-week class to student smokers who want to kick the habit. About 100 students volunteered for the program last year, said Jeannie Fowler, a tobacco awareness facilitator for the district.

Fowler said she stands behind Clinton's proposals but acknowledges that the war against underage smoking is an overwhelming battle.

"I see some seventh-graders smoking two packs a day," she said. "A lot of kids begin smoking because they're tired of playing with Barbie and Ken. Smoking makes them feel more grown up. There also are hunky guys on posters and beautiful ladies who give the whole impression that smoking is OK."

Michael Rose, 17, of Stanton, started smoking when he was still in the sixth grade. He's since kicked his habit, but he said teen-agers who want to smoke will smoke, regardless of the law.

"Kids want to be cool, and smoking gives them a certain look that people consider cool."

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