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Valley Perspective

For Sake of Children, Congress Must Ban 'Kiddie Packs'

Tobacco companies' marketing strategy clearly targets the young.

March 01, 1998|BRAD SHERMAN | Brad Sherman is a Democratic congressman who represents portions of the West San Fernando Valley and Ventura County

The tobacco companies came to the State Board of Equalization last year with an interesting request: They wanted the board to issue a cigarette revenue stamp for a package that contained just one or two cigarettes.

California requires such a stamp to be displayed on all cigarette packages to show that the manufacturer has paid state tobacco taxes. There is no stamp available for packs containing fewer than 20 cigarettes.

Our staff thought the creation of a new stamp was a reasonable request. But having served for four years as chairman of the state Board of Equalization, I had seen the issue raised earlier and knew who the small packages were aimed at: children.

The adult smokers I know are happy to purchase a regular package of 20 cigarettes. Most are hooked on tobacco and finish the pack in a day or two.

But many 13-year-olds are not yet addicted to tobacco; they do not want a whole pack. Moreover they may not have $2 or $3 readily available. The package containing one or two cigarettes is aptly named a "kiddie pack"--a starter kit for the not-yet-addicted. My colleagues at the Board of Equalization rejected the special tax stamp. So far, the tobacco companies have been deterred; they can't sell a package of cigarettes for a 12-year-old's candy bar money if they have to pay the tax applicable to an entire pack.

But we should not rely on a quirk of the tax law of one state to protect the children of our country.

It is not enough to fail to accommodate this insidious marketing strategy. It is time to ban it. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration included in its regulations on tobacco and children a provision eliminating kiddie packs. However, cigarette and smokeless tobacco manufacturers have sued the FDA, arguing that the agency lacks the authority to regulate cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

Congress must take the lead on this issue and send a message to cigarette manufacturers that targeting children will not be tolerated. To this end, I have introduced the Anti-Kiddie-Pack Act, which would ban the sale of packages containing fewer than 15 cigarettes. Congress should not preempt the authority of the FDA to regulate tobacco products--and this bill would not do that--but we must act now to say "no" to kiddie packs. Protecting the future health of our children provides a benefit that will continue to pay dividends for society. Banning kiddie packs is, first and foremost, a lifesaving measure. Each day, nearly 3,000 American children become regular smokers. Of these, 1,000 will die an early death from tobacco-related diseases. Each year, more than 400,000 Americans die from smoking-related diseases. That's more than are killed each year by AIDS, alcohol, car accidents, murders, suicides, illegal drugs and fires combined.

Prohibiting kiddie packs also makes sense from a fiscal perspective. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates the annual savings from the reduction of smoking-caused illnesses at $28 billion to $43 billion. These benefits are achieved through annual medical cost savings of $2.6 billion, annual morbidity-related productivity savings of $900 million and benefits of reduced mortality of $24 billion to $39 billion.

Banning kiddie packs is not the solution to the youth tobacco problem, but it is an important component of a comprehensive plan. It should also be a part of the tobacco settlement that was initiated by more than 20 states' attorneys general and now must be agreed to by Congress and the president.

As long as the FDA rule is delayed in the courts, Congress must move forward and take necessary measures to prevent more children from becoming lifetime smokers because they had the convenience and affordability of kiddie packs.

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