Health Secretary Louis W. Sullivan urged the states today to license tobacco retailers, ban cigarette vending machines and take other steps to stop young people from buying tobacco.
In testimony submitted to the Senate Finance Committee, Sullivan said strengthening enforcement of laws that prohibit the sale of cigarettes to children is "the single most important reform" states could make to keep teen-agers from taking up the habit.
Sullivan proposed model legislation that he urged the states to enact, including a ban on vending machines that dispense cigarettes.
"You can't buy beer from a vending machine. Why should you be able to purchase cigarettes there?" Sullivan asked.
The package also includes a provision that would create a licensing system for tobacco retailers similar to the system used to control the sale of alcoholic beverages.
Another provision would institute penalties, including fines and license suspensions, for retailers who sell cigarettes to minors.
"The model law attempts to create workable procedures which will provide retail outlets the incentives and tools to refuse to sell tobacco to minors, as already required by law in 44 states" and the District of Columbia, he said.
Sullivan said adult smokers would not be affected by the proposed law.
A spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, Walker Merryman, said Sullivan's proposal was "an easy shot at the people who own and operate vending machines," but would not be effective at keeping tobacco away from children.
"I don't think that this is going to do anything to affect the number of young people who buy cigarettes," Merryman said. "We know from a variety of surveys that a very small percentage of minors who buy cigarettes buy them from vending machines."
Ahron Leichtman, president of Citizens Against Tobacco Smoke, praised Sullivan's ideas, which he said could "become the centerpiece of America's war against drugs. The momentum is building for an all-out battle against tobacco."
After his testimony, Sullivan was asked by reporters why he was proposing a state-by-state solution rather than a uniform federal law. He said that "by encouraging the states to enforce their laws . . . (we) would use the system that's already in place."
He said the states could phase in such a ban on vending machines by first restricting their locations to places such as nightclubs and bars where children are not permitted.