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No match for kids

Antismoking funds have been cut. Stores hand out cigarette ads with candy. But some Boston youths are hitting back, and the City Council is coughing up some help.

When he strolled into the Brigham Circle 7-Eleven one afternoon last April, Ronald Chang looked for all the world like a typical 17-year-old cruising for junk food. Cruising more slowly than most, true, and spending an inordinate amount of time eyeing the display ads posted through the store.

Soon, he settled on a small bag of Skittles, paid the cashier $1.48, then stepped out onto Huntington Avenue.

Where he had his eureka moment.

''MARLBORO 3 PACK DEAL ONLY $14.07" read the receipt, just beneath the candy charge.

Chang nearly jumped, he recalled recently. For while Skittles were on his agenda that day, so, too, was a covert assignment: to count the cigarette ads in the store on behalf of the Boston Tobacco Advocacy Project. The youth group had been founded a year earlier to probe how cigarettes ads and sales practices affect young people.

The ads in this case were nothing special -- seven, about standard -- but the receipt was a defining moment in what would become an aggressive B-TAP lobbying campaign to change the way cigarettes can be marketed within Boston's borders.

''That's our main idea," Chang said of the receipt, which raised eyebrows when he showed it to his group's supervisors. ''My little sister, 10 years old, can go in any store, buy Skittles, and she'll get an ad for tobacco. Here's a deal on cigarettes, here's an easy way to buy them for cheap."

The 30 youths made enlarged copies of the receipt, gave them to City Councilor Michael Ross as evidence that cigarette promotions were routinely put in the face of minors, and lobbied the council for a change in the law. By year's end, the City Council had passed an ordinance crafted by the group that increases fines for retailers selling tobacco to minors and doubles to $100 the annual fee merchants must pay to sell tobacco here.

The ordinance took effect this year, and the first new payments from city merchants were due last week.

As a result, an extra $50,000 will be collected from the city's 1,000-plus merchants this year and must be used for enforcement of underage smoking laws. The money goes to the Boston Tobacco Control Program, which checks retailers' compliance with cigarette sales laws by sending 16- and 17-year-olds into stores to buy them.

''The money's going to let us do some checks that we've wanted to do for a while, to be more efficient," said JoAnn Brown, director of the Tobacco Control Program, an arm of the city's Public Health Commission. ''We get more of the kids out there, we provide additional enforcement and more merchant training. There's so much turnover in small stores, and people are just not abreast of the law."

Now B-TAP -- a collaboration of Boston youths ages 14 to 18 -- is plotting its next move.

Its activists are working on closing what has been called a loophole in the 1998 agreement, which ended a four-year legal battle between states and major tobacco companies: While Big Tobacco can't now pitch butts to minors, stores routinely do so, often not subtly.

The tobacco control group was started by program directors at Sociedad Latina, a Mission Hill community organization. Joining with youths from another group in Roxbury and one in JP, B-TAP used a $100,000 grant it received from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to try to decrease youth smoking in Boston.

Led by project coordinator Melissa Luna, the youths meet every weekday after school for 2½ hours to research youth smoking, call city officials, and plan how to enact change. ''We'll talk about the goal and objectives, and I can pretty much leave the room and leave it up to them," said Luna, 23, a Kennedy School of Government grad.

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Many of the 30 Advocacy Project volunteers did not start out crusaders; they just wanted to make some money. Youth organizations and high school guidance counselors often refer students to Sociedad Latina, the Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury and the Hyde Square Task Force in JP, all of which pay a $70-per-week stipend for 10 hours of work ranging from organizing career workshops to youth violence prevention.

B-TAP members move on eventually when they need to make more money, or move from the neighborhood, leaving the cause to a fresh crop of teens. The newest group, fueled by another grant, is focusing on limiting smoking advertising.

By focusing on youth smoking prevention, the teenagers are bringing renewed attention to a cause once advocated particularly hard in Massachusetts. Once the nation's leader in antismoking programs, Massachusetts last year fell to 40th place among US states in spending on smoking prevention, at $3.8 million, according to a report by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

In 2002, the state budget for tobacco control programs was $48 million; in 2003 it was cut to $4.8 million, according to state officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that Massachusetts spend at least $35 million yearly on such programs, including the distribution of educational materials about cigarettes in local schools, to be effective.

''The state was in, and continues to deal with, a fiscal crisis, and while all programs offered in the past were important, we had to prioritize because of the scarcity of funds," said Dick Powers, a spokesman for the state's Department of Public Health, in explaining why spending on tobacco control spending dropped so drastically.

Powers said funding has also dropped because of the belief that the statewide workplace smoking ban, which prohibits smoking in indoor workplaces and went into effect in May, 2003, ''will do more to prevent smoking than any government spending program."

The scaling back of prevention programs hit home for the youths in B-TAP, Luna said.

''The youth noticed that they knew so many people who were smoking," Luna said. ''They had this idea that because all these programs were cut, youth were smoking at a higher rate."

So they made some phone calls. They found that the sales of tobacco products to minors, as reported by the Boston Tobacco Control Program, have risen in Boston by over 10 percent from 2003 to 2004. In West Roxbury and Brighton, sales to minors increased 21 percent. They also found that in towns like Arlington, merchants pay a $500 fee to sell tobacco, a far cry from the $50 fee Boston merchants had to pay.

The research done, the politicking began. The Advocacy Project teens packaged their research into a sleek presentation, rehearsed their proposal, and brought it before City Councilor Ross in April.

''The whole thing sounded perfect to me. I didn't see any down side," Ross said. ''What part of selling to kids could you support? But I was also worried because this is an economic issue."

The push to increase the fee for selling tobacco from $50 to $150 touched off a wave of frustrated response from city merchants, who are not allowed to up cigarette prices to pay increased fees because prices are set by tobacco companies, with a tax added by the state.Concerned about the proposed fee, merchants pressed city councilors. According to Luna, City Councilor John Tobin of West Roxbury was particularly vocal in his opposition; he amended the ordinance to cap the tobacco permit fee at $100.

''I have a lot of mom-and-pop operations and bodegas," in the district, Tobin said. ''I'm just trying to be fair and cut these shop owners a break."

One such shop owner, Steve Slyne, owner of a deli on Centre Street in West Roxbury that bears his name, said the fee hike amounts to ''just another tax" on small businesses, which have to dig deeper than chains like Walgreens to pay annual permit fees. Slyne, who said he was fined twice last year for selling cigarettes to minors, said checking ages can be tough when the shop gets busy, and shy cashiers often don't ask for ID.

Plus, said Slyne, a 45-year smoker himself, ''smoking isn't the worst thing in the world for a kid, that's my feeling. Put some of the money into the underage drinking and the underage dope."

The ordinance came to a vote Dec. 8 after a hearing. In a final push for support, about 25 teenage advocates, led by Luna, flooded City Hall after a November school day.

''We talked to the councilors, to the aides, whoever we could find. . . . They [the teens] chased Councilor [Robert] Consalvo down the hall," Luna said. ''We're not allowed to lobby because we're a nonprofit, so we definitely did some education."

The day of the vote, Jasmin Irizarry, a 17-year-old junior at Boston Latin Academy, where she collected 78 signatures in support of the legislation, chatted up anyone who would listen about what the City Council was debating, while she and her friends ate lunch in the school cafeteria.

''I'm like talking about the city councilors, and they're like, 'who are these people?' " Irizarry said. ''I was really anxious. . . . It took over my day."

The South End teen said she was turned on to the issue of smoking prevention in part by hearing friends tell stories about buying cigarettes illegally.

''One of my friends was like, 'When I was little, my mother used to send me to the store to get her cigarettes, and they used to give them to me,' " she said. ''This wasn't [project coordinator] Melissa Luna giving us an example, this was a friend who really went to the store and bought cigarettes for her mother."

As Irizarry waited anxiously, councilors debated for nearly 20 minutes over how hefty the fee should be after Tobin offered his amendment. The amended ordinance passed unanimously. ''I agree the increase might be warranted, but I think a 100 percent increase is enough," Tobin said in explaining his amendment.

Tobin said the wrangling taught the teens a lesson about the give-and-take of achieving concrete change in politics.

''It's like the old saying about sausage: It tastes great, but you don't want to know how it's made," he said.

Lessons learned, the youths are turning the focus back to that 7-Eleven receipt. They've found that such advertisements are not illegal under the state's 1998 agreement with the tobacco companies, because 7-Eleven, not Marlboro, prints the receipts.

''It's perfectly legal," Luna said. ''We want to make sure we find a way to make it not legal."

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