A pack of Marlboros, please."
"May I see your ID?"
"Um ... I don't have one ..."
"Well, how old are you?"
"You must be eighteen or older to purchase tobacco. Next customer please!"
This scenario became all too familiar as I spent my summer working behind the front counter of a local drug store. I suppose I should not be shocked that so many teens have made smoking a part of their lives. Today, 46 million Americans are smokers and th e number is on the rise. Kids are puffing away and parents are furious with the tobacco industries. Politicians claim that they are striving to protect the nation's young people from the dangerous side effects of cigarettes, but the kids only continue to puff, and the parents keep complaining. What's wrong here?
It's no surprise that one of the fringe issues in the current campaign concerns the question of whether or not smoking should be banned. Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole seems to have set the spark last June when he expressed his doubts about ni cotine addiction. The June 28 New York Times reported him reinforcing his statement saying, "We know it's not good for kids. But a lot of other things aren't good. Drinking's not good. Some would say milk's not good." Since then, Dole's spark has left a c igarette burn on the heart of America.
Recently, scientific research performed on rats supported what scientists have been claiming all along - that nicotine is indeed a habit-forming drug. Led by Gaetano di Chiara, a neuroscientist at the University of Cagliari in Italy, researchers found tha t after injecting the rats with a small amount of nicotine, a powerful brain chemical called dopamine drastically increased in the part of the brain believed to control the process of addiction. In other words, if kids smoke now, they are likely to smoke later on in life.
The surgeon general warns that smoking may cause lung cancer and other unwanted side effects. Parents don't like this, and politicians don't want angry parents. So lawmakers like President Clinton stage anti-smoking crusades and place limits on sales of c igarettes to kids. This seems to be a good thing. Laws recently passed to limit sales of tobacco have prompted 714 stores in the country to get out of the cigarette business. Requirements that cigarette displays be located in a different area than soda ma chines and video games brought down profits. Even Target, a chain which has stores in 37 states, stopped cigarette sales.
But I still see kids on the corner with cigarettes dangling from their mouths. They may be hindered now, but they will eventually find new ways to keep their habits. As long as cigarettes are available, kids will smoke them. Years down the road, one in th ree of these kids will still die from a smoke-related illness.
No, if the federal government really wants to keep tobacco away from kids they will have to eliminate the source of the problem - tobacco companies. So why don't they?
You can probably guess the answer by now - money. Tobacco companies contribute millions of dollars to politicians. The GOP receives 84 cents of each dollar that these companies hand out. Vice President Al Gore referred to the Republican National Committee as "just about a wholly owned subsidiary of the tobacco industry."
But the Democrats are far from being uninvolved. At their Chicago convention, they even had the corporate support of Philip Morris, but it was funneled through the company's subsidiary, Kraft Foods. The July 15 issue of Newsweek reported that over the pa st five years, the top contributors in the tobacco industry (Philip Morris, RJR Nabisco, and U.S. Tobacco) gave a combined total of $6,018,807 to Republicans and Democrats. Now why do you think America's teens are still lighting up?
Until politicians realize that they can't have their cake and eat it too, nothing will change. Cigarette sales may decrease due to certain laws, but if President Clinton or Mr. Dole really aspires to kick the teenage smoking habit, he will have to kick to bacco companies first.
Jill Dellamalva is a sophomore majoring in English. Her column, 'Focused Light,' appears every other Friday.