WASHINGTON – Maryland’s efforts to keep tobacco products out of the hands of minors fell far short in 1996, according to a new study whose author singled out the state for a failing grade.
Dr. Joseph DiFranza said Maryland was the only state in 1996 that did not have a law penalizing owners of cigarette vending machines that were patronized by kids.
But DiFranza, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said Maryland was not alone in its neglect of the federal law on minors and tobacco, the so-called Synar Amendment. It was one of 19 states not in compliance with the law and one of 27 with laws hindering its enforcement.
“Almost all of the states failed miserably,” DiFranza said Wednesday. “We have too many states where the legislature is more interested in protecting the tobacco industry than protecting kids.”
But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said DiFranza’s study, published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, was based on outdated information.
“Enforcement data . since 1996 unmistakably shows the Synar program has been extremely successful in achieving its goals,” said Dr. Nelba Chavez, administrator of the department’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“All states now have laws making it illegal to sell or distribute tobacco to minors,” Chavez said in a prepared statement.
SAMHSA officials have been satisfied enough with compliance efforts that no state or territory has had federal block grant funds withheld, as the Synar Amendment requires for those that fail to live up to the law.
Maryland got $25 million in block grants for health in 1996, the year of DiFranza’s study, and it got $29.4 million in fiscal 1999, which ended Oct. 1.
The federal government has warned seven states and Washington, D.C., that they were out of compliance with the law, but each will get a chance for a hearing before funding is pulled.
“We wouldn’t make a decision like that without data,” said Mark Weber, a spokesman for SAMHSA. “Things have changed dramatically within those years (since the study).”
The chairman of the Governor’s Task Force to End Smoking in Maryland agreed.
“Each year we’re making steady improvements,” said Dr. Martin Wasserman, who is also a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. “Over the next 10 years, we hope to be much better.”
The state does much worse on vending machines, which are “easier places for young people to get tobacco products,” Wasserman said.
The study said SAMHSA warned Maryland in February 1995 that the state was not in compliance with the law and could lose block grant funding, because it only required signs on vending machines warning minors they could not buy cigarettes. But the agency reversed its decision three months later, saying that while the law requires states to prohibit tobacco sales to minors, it does not specify that there must be penalties for violators.
The law, enacted in 1992 and named for the late Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., makes block grants available to states and territories that enact and enforce a prohibition on the sale of tobacco to minors.
The states and territories apply to SAMSHA annually for the funds. DiFranza’s study was based on 1997 grant applications, which detail activities in fiscal 1996, the latest information available during the audit.
“I’m not surprised that Maryland is not ranking as high as I’d want it to be,” said Dr. Albert Blumberg, president of Smoke Free Maryland and a radiation oncologist at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. “I know we’ve had problems like this in the past.”
Some jurisdictions, like Montgomery and Talbot counties, have made the resources available to check up on tobacco merchants, by sending minors in to buy cigarettes, while someone watches the transaction. Other areas claim they do not have the manpower, Blumberg said.
Blumberg believes there should be penalties for merchants who sell cigarettes to minors.
“Putting someone’s license at risk is very important for these kinds of youth-access laws,” Blumberg said.