US teenagers to face tobacco ban

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President Bill Clinton yesterday carried his administration's anti- smoking battle into North Carolina, heart of America's tobacco-growing country, in a controversial visit to prepare the ground for new federal measures to curb cigarette use by teenagers.

Mr Clinton's speech to a Baptist convention in Charlotte came 24 hours before he was expected to unveil new steps to curb under-age smoking, including a ban on vending machines in places frequented by young people, further limits on cigarette advertising, and a proof-of-age requirement for people buying cigarettes.

The President gave no specifics, but his message was plain. Under-age smoking was "one of the greatest threats to the health of our children," he said. "Having no teenagers smoke would be one of the easiest, cheapest things to do to change the whole healthcare dynamic in America." Even modest measures are fiercely opposed by the tobacco industry, which sees them as the thin end of the wedge of full scale federal regulation of tobacco. Before Mr Clinton spoke, protests were mounting in North Carolina, where tobacco is a $16bn industry generating tens of thousands of jobs, and other tobacco growing states.

"We don't need big government running our lives," said Jim Hunt, the North Carolina Governor, as Mr Clinton arrived. Earlier, a Republican Congressman from Virginia, another big tobacco state, was forced to apologise for saying that the President would need "good security" if he talked about tobacco regulations in North Carolina. The tobacco companies, meanwhile, began a pre-emptive strike with Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro, introducing labelling for its brands to include the words "Under-age sale prohibited" alongside the health warnings packets must by law carry.

Even Mr Clinton, who is weighing whether to follow up a government finding and have nicotine formally categorised as a dangerous drug, recognises the power of the industry.

Earlier this week he said that while he favoured "tough regulations", he wanted to avoid measures "which could be tied up in the courts for years and years" while children continued to be bombarded with advertisements intended to get them to smoke.

Tobacco is an increasingly delicate political calculation for the White House. Opinion polls show that across the country the current anti-smoking blitz is overwhelmingly supported, with even smokers favouring measures making it harder for their children to do so. But in parts of the South it is a different story.

With the party already in severe trouble across the region, many Democrats fear that stricter tobacco curbs could cost them more seats in the Carolinas, Virginia, Kentucky and other producer states.

Conceivably, some conservative southern Democrats might switch party and strengthen the Republicans' control of Congress further.

For that reason, House Minority leader, Richard Gephardt, of Missouri, is backing tobacco state Democrats against additional regulations.