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By Benhur C. Saladores

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (Dec. 20, 1999 – Saipan Tribune)---Because existing law is not strong enough to deter minors from buying and using tobacco products on the islands, legislation under way in the House of Representatives proposes to raise the age of prohibition from 18 to 21 years old.

Its proponent, Rep. Malua T. Peter, said restricting access to tobacco products will ensure protection of minors from the harmful effects of tobacco smoking, which she noted has become a serious threat in the CNMI.

Under House Bill 11-509, Ms. Peter will seek amendments to Public Law 11-75 or the Tobacco Act to tighten the penalty against those below 21 years old who are found violating the law. The penalties include a fine of up to $2,000, one-year imprisonment or community service of up to 350 hours.

"The future of the Commonwealth must be protected from such dangerous habits. The purpose of this act is to [raise] the age [and] in the end result to dramatically decrease unhealthy lifestyles by our youth population," said the representative about her proposal.

Penalties and fines for illegal sales of tobacco will also be increased, from a $1,000 fine for a first offense to not less than a one-year revocation of a business license at retail stores and establishments operating vending machines.

These amendments propose to revise the law signed last March by Gov. Pedro P. Tenorio, which was intended to strictly enforce a ban on tobacco use among minors, including an increase in penalties for people who buy or sell cigarettes to children.

Proponents of the legislation had defended the measure, saying it would help curb the growing incidence of use of tobacco products by youths in the CNMI, which they believed continued to rise despite enforcement of an earlier law.

Although there have been no reports of violators since the approval of the law, lawmakers have expressed concern that some teenagers still may be using tobacco products because of lax enforcement.

One House member said some stores sell tobacco products without requiring an identification card from minors who may look older than their actual age.

There are no government estimates of how widespread tobacco use by minors is in the Northern Marianas. A study conducted by the Institute of Medicine says 16 million packs of cigarettes are consumed by minors in the United States every year and half of those are illegally sold to underage persons.

The Department of Public Health has strongly lobbied for the approval of a wider ban on tobacco use by minors due to the increasing number of youths smoking cigarettes on school premises.

While Commonwealth laws consider 18 years as age of reason -- permitting them they can vote in elections -- entertainment establishments generally prohibit entry to persons below 21 years old.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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