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American tobacco companies under threat with the planned banning of sale of cigarettes to minors

PETER THOMPSON: The net or perhaps the noose appears to be tightening around American tobacco companies. New laws have been proposed to cut off the industry's future, by blocking cigarette sales to young people. As Martin Debelle reports, the proposal continues a firm trend of official opposition to cigarettes, even by pro-business governments like the Bush Administration.

MARTIN DEBELLE: For most of the 1980s, President Reagan's Surgeon-General, C. Everett Coupe(?), campaigned against cigarette companies, banning advertisements and forcing warning labels onto cigarette packets. Now President Bush's Secretary of Health, Dr Lewis Sullivan, has taken up the crusade. He's proposed a wholesale assault on trying to stop new smokers, mainly teenage children.

It's illegal for minors to buy cigarettes in most US states, but Dr Sullivan told Congress that his department could only identify 32 cases last year, where vendors were being prosecuted for selling cigarettes to children, even though his department also estimated that one billion packets of cigarettes a year, were sold to teenagers. The biggest culprit he said, was the cigarette vending machine, and the Secretary of Health proposed that cigarette sales from vending machines should be banned.

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LEWIS SULLIVAN: We must put an end to the time when any child with a handful of change, can commence the slow motion suicide that has taken the lives of millions of Americans. We must put an end to the sacrifice of our children on the tobacco merchant's altar of profit.

MARTIN DEBELLE: Dr Sullivan claimed that 3,000 American teenagers took up smoking each day, most of whom became addicted. He also said tobacco vendors should be licensed in the same way that retailers of beer, wine and spirits are licensed, and they should face similar fines and lose their licences if they're caught selling to children. Dr Sullivan also directly attacked the tobacco companies for promoting tobacco addiction among groups in society, in particular, with women.

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LEWIS SULLIVAN: These advertisements use appealing images to mask an awful reality; and the reality is that smoking is a killer, and an equal opportunity killer at that.

MARTIN DEBELLE: The cigarette companies responded saying that Dr Sullivan's proposals would do nothing to stop children from taking up smoking; but they may be more concerned about two other simultaneous announcements. Both Harvard University and the City University of New York decided independently, to sell off their portfolios of tobacco company shares. The two universities are estimated to own around $70 million worth of tobacco company shares between them.

Martin Debelle, New York.