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Cigarette smoking kills thousands of people a year, with many people becoming addicted to the habit as teen-agers. And for stopping young smokers, a ban on cigarette advertising remains the primary "solution" under discussion.

Why focus on the messages?

Both national and local surveys repeatedly find that bans on the sale of cigarettes to people under 18 are among the least enforced laws in the nation.

While everyone is quick to criticize cigarette advertising, rarely is heard a call for strict law enforcement.

Supposedly, without advertising, no child would want a cigarette until he or she was old enough to make an informed decision. Even some advertising practitioners apparently believe that, without advertising, young smokers would never realize how enjoyable addiction to a carcinogenic substance could be.

Cigarettes are a legal product, with laws restricting purchase to adults old enough to know what they are doing. To stop many young smokers, make it harder for them to get a steady supply of the product instead of hoping they won't want a cigarette if a billboard never tells them about it.

Joe Camel is not the problem because, to be successful, he must appeal to people who are able to buy cigarettes.

When the Federal Trade Commission decided to stop investigating Camel's use of a cartoon character for its brand image, the American Medical Association blasted the FTC. It said that since the start of the campaign, the brand's share of what it called the "illegal children's cigarette market" has risen dramatically.

What the AMA said might be true, but it ignores three basic facts: (1) During the same period, Camel became a popular cigarette with all smokers; (2) an illegal market's most popular brands are always similar to those of the legal market; and (3) as they said, sales to children constitutes an "illegal market," but they ignored that it is restricted by laws that often are unenforced.

Regardless of how high school students start their habit, they have to acquire the product to use it. Maybe some steal from their parents, but by many estimates children under 18 consume more than a billion cigarettes a year. No habit that large could be supported by a periodic raid on mother's purse.

High school students who report smoking a pack or two a day must be able to buy them. And for those sales to children, retail merchants violate the law. Tougher and enforced laws on cigarette sales would do more to decrease smoking among our youth than any new advertising regulations.

Mr. Rotfeld is associate professor of marketing at Auburn University, Auburn, Ala.

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