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Fix the tobacco law

Florida is the toughest state in the nation when it comes to cigarette sales to minors. The reason is simple: aggressive enforcement of the law. One of the state's most successful enforcement tools is the random spot-check, using volunteer teenagers. With regulators close by, teens go into convenience stores or gas stations to try to buy cigarettes. If they succeed, the offending retailer is fined or loses its license. Most often, the teens come away empty-handed. Having these young volunteers on the job _ with word of their surprise visits circulating among other retailers _ helps to keep it that way.

Unfortunately, this teen-agent program _ and Florida's continued enforcement success _ is in jeopardy, due to an unintended glitch in last year's law. The glitch is contained in the 1997 tobacco enforcement legislation. Meant to protect teen agents from penalties for any purchase, the law instead let retailers off the hook for any resulting sale. Retailers have seized on the mistake and can be expected to exploit it to block further enforcement.

Regulators from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation have backed corrective legislation sponsored by Sen. James Hargrett, D-Tampa. The Senate has already passed the bill, but the House continues to drag its feet.

Time is running out, but House Speaker Daniel Webster should make every effort to correct this problem in the law before adjourning today. Not only does the glitch hinder state enforcement efforts, it also puts at risk millions of dollars' worth of federal substance-abuse grants the state has received as a reward for its successful efforts. This year, federal officials ranked Florida's compliance rate at the top among all states. If that record drops, so may the amount of money Florida gets from the feds.

If nothing else, the money at stake should be enough incentive for the House to fix the problem before lawmakers head home.

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